You could say that it was a day of redemption for Joe Root. The England captain has been under immense pressure recently due to a mixture of England’s poor form and his own shortcomings with the bat in Tests. After scoring just 2 and 11 in the first Test against New Zealand and his team suffering an innings defeat, the criticism had reached its peak.
On the second day of the second Test, Root had to walk out to the middle at Hamilton with England in a bit of trouble. The visitors were 24/2 after New Zealand had put on 375 in their first innings. England’s batting fragilities in recent times meant that this wasn’t the first time that the Yorkshire cricketer walked into bat in such a situation.
Root, along with Rory Burns, got England in front with a remarkable 177-run partnership on day three. Burns fell just two deliveries after getting to his century and the onus was on Root to kick on and get a huge score. And so he did!
In the morning session on Monday, it was déjà vu from the day before as England went the entire period without losing a wicket. This time, it was Ollie Pope who played a brilliant hand alongside Root.
The England skipper displayed remarkable character, patience and skill to bring up his third Test double hundred to give England an outside chance of forcing a result. To give you an idea of how hard Root worked, this was his longest Test innings in terms of deliveries faced (441) and minutes spent at the crease (636). Another interesting fact from Root’s innings was that he batted at a strike rate of 51.24, which is the lowest in any of the Test centuries he has scored.
Pope, who had a fabulous season in the County Championship earlier this year - scoring 561 runs at 80.14, had a slow start to his Test career with low scores in his first three matches. But here, he showed why he is rated as one of the finest young talents in English cricket by playing a brilliant supporting act.
When Pope joined Root in the middle on Sunday with the score reading 262/5, the match was in the balance and he took his time to get his eye in. While there weren’t many demons in the Hamilton pitch, it wasn’t easy to play scoring shots. The 21-year-old showed great maturity and played the role of second fiddle perfectly.
In the post-lunch session, England’s attacking intentions were there to be seen as the duo were looking to build a huge lead quickly. At one stage, Kane Williamson and co. were definitely feeling the heat and the field was spread out as saving runs was the order of the day. “It’s a worried field,” remarked commentator Ian Smith on air.
The duo of Root and Pope ended up putting on a 193-run sixth-wicket partnership before the latter was dismissed for 75 while going for a big shot off Neil Wagner. And just as you’d have guessed, it was a short delivery that did the trick for Wagner once again. An over later, Root’s marathon knock came to an end on 226 as he tried to take the attack to Mitchell Santner and was caught in the deep.
With a formidable tail at their disposal, you would have expected England to build on their lead despite the loss of the two set batsmen, but that wasn’t the case. The visitors lost their last six wickets for just 21 runs, as they were bowled for 476 with a lead of 101.
It was Wagner, who led the Kiwi fightback with the ball. The left-arm pacer registered his second successive five-wicket haul and continues to be New Zealand’s most impressive bowler in the longest format of the game. Since 2016, he is the Blackcaps’ highest wicket-taker (120) in Tests. He also possesses the best bowling average (23.43) and strike rate (48.4) among all New Zealand bowlers who have taken at least five wickets during this period.
New Zealand, in their second innings, were put under a bit of a pressure early on as openers Jeet Raval and first-innings centurion Tom Latham were back in the hut with the hosts still trailing by 73. Raval was dismissed leg-before-wicket for a duck, but replays showed that he got a huge inside edge. Surprisingly, he did not take a review and having scored just 64 runs from his last seven innings, this is something he will surely regret.
Just as England sniffed a chance to make major inroads, the experienced duo of Williamson and Ross Taylor held fort and made sure that there were no more wickets to fall until stumps. Both batsmen are unbeaten in their 30s, and will know that this match and series isn’t a foregone conclusion yet. If New Zealand finish the opening session on day five without losing a wicket, like England managed to do on the last two days, they shouldn’t have much worries of losing this Test.
For Root’s side, it’s going to be a tough task to enforce a result here, especially with showers predicted on Tuesday afternoon. If the forecast holds true, they’d need a miracle. But if there’s any team you’d associate with cricketing miracles this year, it’s England!
New Zealand 375 all out (Latham 105, Mitchell 73; Broad 4/73, Woakes 3/83) and 96/2 (Williamson 37*, Taylor 31*; Woakes 1/8, Curran 1/26) trail England 476 all out (Root 226, Burns 101; Wagner 5/124, Southee 2/90) by 5 runs