One of the greatest thrills in sports is the occurrence of the unexpected. Instances of an underdog coming from behind to shock the fancied opponent, a combatant pushed to the ropes and barely able to sustain himself suddenly finding an ounce of extra energy to bounce back and score an upset win and a side written off as too unworthy to be taken seriously shocking the pundits by putting up flawless performances are some examples of this phenomenon. Nothing gives the connoisseur of sports greater happiness than a well-fought game, where both sides give their best, and the result turns out to be the narrowest of the margins. In such situations, the victors may show elation and the losers feel disappointment but they soon understand that this feeling is transient as realisation that they were part of a historic match sets in on them. This constitutes the ultimate beauty of sports.
Those followers of cricket who were able to watch or follow the second Test of the series played between New Zealand and England at Basin Reserve, Wellington, last week were privileged to witness history at first hand. This is a match that will be remembered for all time to come for it produced not merely the smallest of margin of victory but also provided one of the few instances where a side came back to win a Test after being forced to follow on. Both teams played positive cricket and kept fighting till the end in the firm belief that victory was theirs for the taking. Though New Zealand managed to eke out a one-run victory, the real winners were the game of cricket and the format of Test matches played over five days. There cannot be a bigger advertisement for this version of the game than such matches.
England have been a roll ever since Brendon McCullum took over as the coach of the national side for Test matches and Ben Stokes replaced Joe Root as the skipper. Playing a brand of aggressive cricket popularly known as 'Bazball', they have steamrollered opponents, got out of tricky situations with aplomb and displayed a form of supreme self belief that unnerved the opposing sides. This resulted in the spectacular transformation of a disjointed team, that had won only one Test in the previous 17 matches before McCullum took over, into a champion outfit that emerged victorious in 10 games out of 11 after the introduction of 'Bazball'. The 267-run win in the first Test of the series against New Zealand at Auckland served to further underline the success of this approach.
In all fairness, it should be admitted that New Zealand did not play poorly in the first Test. It was more in the nature of they being swept away by a superior force despite their best efforts. The hosts had the visitors in a spot on the first day of the second Test at Wellington by reducing them to 21/3. But England fought back in style with Root and Harry Brook getting together in a 302-run stand for the fourth wicket. They played attacking cricket and Brook, in particular, scored runs at a brisk pace with his knock of 186 coming off a mere 176 balls. Root anchored the rest of the batting and England declared on the second day with their total at 435/8. That this score was made in only 87.1 overs, at a run rate of 4.99, shows the extent to which the batsmen dominated the proceedings after the initial hiccups.
England bowlers struck with the ball soon afterwards and bundled out New Zealand for a paltry 209, with the fast bowling pair of James Anderson and Stuart Broad sharing seven wickets between them.
The visitors tried to tighten the screws by enforcing the follow-on, thinking that their bowlers would be able to do an encore and finish the game early. However, they had not reckoned with the brilliance of Kane Williamson and his extraordinary ability to come to the rescue of his side in the most difficult times. Coming in to bat after the openers Tom Latham and Devon Conway had put on 149, Williamson guided the side through the next 100 overs and departed only after the total had reached 455. The collapse that followed his dismissal, when the last five wickets fell for a mere 28 runs in a span of 10 overs, demonstrated the value of this innings, which helped the hosts to post a reasonable target for the visitors.
The Kiwi bowlers had their tails up when they came in to bowl in the second innings. Williamson’s innings inspired them to dig into the reserves of their strength and stamina to generate sufficient pace and movement to make England batsmen hop around like cats on hot bricks. Suddenly the target of 258, the likes of which England would have blazed through in 50 overs or less appeared to be insurmountable. Five wickets fell by the time the total reached 80 and only a 121-run stand between Root and Stokes helped to breath life back into the chase. At this juncture New Zealand found an unlikely hero in veteran Neil Wagner who used the short-pitched ball to good effect to remove Stokes and Root in a matter of two overs to bring the hosts back into the game. A seesaw battle followed after that with both sides refusing to yield an inch. In the end, skipper Tim Southee returned for one final spell and removed Ben Foakes, who looked like taking the visitors to a win, when they were only seven runs short of the target. With tensions reaching fever pitch, Wagner got last man Anderson to attempt a flick at a short one going down to the leg side and the resultant edge was held by a diving Tom Blundell behind the stumps.
Thus ended one of the most exciting Test matches of all time with only one run separating the victors from the vanquished. The rival captains praised the efforts of both sides and agreed that the match was a huge advertisement for the institution of Test cricket. There was only one instance in the past where the margin of victory had been so narrow - West Indies vs Australia at Adelaide in 1993 - when the former held their nerve to eke out a win. There were only three occasions prior to this Test where the side that was forced to follow on had fought back to snatch a win. Thus, this match falls under the category of “rarest of rare”, both in the context of the result as well as in the sudden change in fortunes of the sides that took part in it.
Looking back, one can see that England dominated the proceedings through the greater part of the first three days after which the Kiwis' fightback with the bat began. The Black Caps gained the upper hand slowly, but did so in a steady manner and honours were split even by the time play concluded on the fourth day. The authorities at Basin Reserve threw open the gates on the last day to promote maximum attendance and the support from the spectators lent an extra bounce to the strides of the bowlers and fielders of the home side. It was edge-of-the-seat excitement on the final day with fortunes swinging wildly but neither side yielding an inch. It is more difficult to bowl in such situations when even one loose ball can spell defeat but the hosts kept their cool better in the tense final moments, which helped them to nudge the visitors. Hence it is only fair that the match has been elevated to the status of a classic, where the game is the ultimate winner and there are no losers.
Comparisons can be odious and tend to generate bad will. But one cannot help indulging in this act especially since a Test series is currently played between India and Australia, two sides with justifiable claims for the pole position in international cricket. It can be seen that the matches in New Zealand produced exciting cricket, with the game lasting the full distance in the second Test, while the ones played in India tended to be one-sided (even when the visitors won) and got over in less than three days. The pitches in Auckland and Wellington had something in it for the willowwielders and hurlers of the red cherry of all types, which led to good scores and fair final results, while the surfaces in India tended to help only the spinners. In short, spectators got their money’s worth in New Zealand while those in India cannot be blamed for thinking that they were short changed, despite the results largely favouring the home side. In short, authorities in New Zealand can take pride in laying the ground for producing brilliant cricket, which serve as an advertisement for the game while the curators in India are doing a great disservice by preparing tracks that kill positive cricket.
While congratulating the New Zealand and England sides for displaying positive outlook, let us not forget to applaud the excellent work done by the ground staff and authorities at Auckland and Wellington for preparing pitches of high quality that promote top class cricket.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)