How Williamson's underrated brigade trumped Root's glamour boys in the battle of attrition

New Zealand's Kane Williamson celebrates his half century
©Reuters
 

Had the glamour boys persisted a bit more and not attempted those atrocious shots or had the underrated brigade not scraped the bottom of their energy tank to come up with a special performance, the score line might have still read love all.

Winning the toss on a slow Mount Maunganui pitch was a huge advantage that came England's way. Now, all they had to do was to score big, preferably bat only once and unleash their quartet of pace bowlers along with the consistency of Jack Leach and a Test victory away from home would be theirs. Simple, right?

There was just a slight problem. England while playing in their home conditions had got accustomed to Test cricket moving quickly. They were coming off a Ashes series where scores of 300 were generally good enough. This cricket in 'fast forward' mode was something that skipper Joe Root alluded to before the beginning of the series:

"We have to be prepared to play some attritional cricket at times. We have to try to bat longer. And it doesn't just apply to our batting. It's with the ball as well. We have to be prepared to go at two an over and build pressure in different ways. You can fall into the trap when playing in English conditions, as they've been in the last couple of years, and get used to Test cricket being played in fast forward."

The start from England in the first innings was promising. A 50+ opening stand between Rory Burns and Dominic Sibley set the base for a big total. Despite Sibley's dismissal, Burns went on to score a half-century. Joe Denly looked solid at one drop and the team was well placed for the score of around 500 that would not only have eaten a lot of time in the game but also put the visitors in a very dominant position.

After a Joe Root failure and despite two good contributions coming from Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, the team could not really capitalise on the advantage and was bowled out for 353.

Jack Leach and Sam Curran then helped England get an early edge in New Zealand's first innings by reducing the hosts to 144-4 at the end of day 2. But, after Henry Nicholls and Colin de Grandhome put miles in the legs of the English bowlers, BJ Watling and Mitchell Santner took full toll of a tired attack.

Now, Watling and Santner are not names that you see regularly in the sports columns. Yet, almost everyone following the game is not unknown to their abilities.

With a Test average of over 40, coming in to bat at number 6 - a specialist position and playing the bulk of his cricket in New Zealand conditions which are considered not the most conducive for batting, BJ Watling's stats are as good as any wicketkeeper-batsman you will find around the globe. Still many might not name him in the list of their top five contemporary Test wicketkeepers mainly due to him not being in the public consciousness. A few others might not even know him by face.

As he combined with Santner for a marathon partnership, with the Kookaburra ball not doing much, the English bowlers did not really have a plan B to fall back upon. Jofra Archer, who looked mighty impressive in the Ashes, could only pick up one wicket despite bowling as many as 42 overs.

Watling's double and Santner's century meant that England had an uphill deficit of 262 to counter. It did not help that the English top order felt the pressure as the team was reduced to 55-3 at the end of day 4, all wickets going to the left-arm spinner.

Still with the pedigree of Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler in the hut, England genuinely had a chance of salvaging a draw on the final day. These were the glamour boys, having made a name for themselves in the cricketing world not only based on their sporting acumen but the all-round package that they bring with themselves.

Their contributions, and that there have been many, are widely discussed in the media and make newspaper headlines. Ben Stokes is probably the most talked about cricketer of 2019 with writers having run out of adjectives to describe his virtues. With an 84-ball stay at the crease, something that ignited a semblance of hope in the English fans, he displayed that all of it is for good reason. A Headingley moment, though, is called one for the ages for a reason, you see.

After Trent Boult was ruled out of the final day due to pain in the ribs, England were left with only four bowlers, including two all-rounders, to do the job for them. At such a juncture, Neil Wagner, another of New Zealand's many unsung heroes, stepped up to the occasion.

For a Test bowling average of 27.04 (Jimmy Anderson's is 26.94) and 182 wickets from just 43 Test matches, Wagner is given little credit to what he deserves, for the sheer heart with which he gives his all, day in and day out, even in hostile or unresponsive conditions. The pacer picked up a 5-wicket haul to wrap England's second innings for 197.

The visitors were just 65 runs short of New Zealand's first innings score and were finally bowled out with just 20 odd overs left in the match. Had the glamour boys persisted a bit more and not attempted those atrocious shots or had the underrated brigade not scraped the bottom of their energy tank to come up with a special performance, the score line might have still read love all.

©Cricket World 2019