The sight of the England and New Zealand players happily kicking a ball around together on the Basin Reserve outfield after the dust had settled on one of the most remarkable climaxes to any Test was proof of the fundamental principle of ‘Bazball.’
Yes, of course England want to win, as a record that now stands at 10 victories from 12 Tests under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum demonstrates.
But there is a bigger picture at play and that is England’s mission to provide highly entertaining, positive and compelling cricket at all times to try to preserve the health of what, when played like this, remains unparalleled as the greatest form of the game.
And they really do mean it when they say they are prepared to risk losing to fulfil that mission, as their reaction to defeat, to coin a phrase, by the barest of all margins, here as New Zealand won by a solitary run in the most dramatic circumstances, proves.
That’s why it is impossible to criticise Stokes for his decision to enforce the follow on, a move that gave New Zealand their only realistic chance of winning a second Test that looked completely beyond them after the first three days.
England lost one of the greatest Test matches of all time, but they fulfilled their mission to play highly entertaining, positive and compelling cricket at all times to try to preserve the game
The sight of the England and New Zealand players socialising after the dust had settled on one of the most remarkable climaxes to a Test was proof of the fundamental principle of ‘Bazball’
It is impossible to criticise Stokes for his decision to enforce the follow on after the first innings
And it is impossible to blame a batting line-up that looked unusually hesitant and nervy in chasing down what, when compared to the six successful chases they have already pulled off in the last year, should have been a routine trot to 258 to win this series.
New Zealand may have become only the fourth team in history to win after following on while England were denied their seventh successive victory, an historic clean sweep of all their winter Tests and their first series win in New Zealand since 2008. But, corny as it may sound, there were truly no losers at this magnificent old ground today.
‘What a game,’ said Stokes afterwards without a shred of disappointment at England’s agonising near miss. ‘I just think that if you can’t look back at that match and be thankful you’ve been involved in a game like that, then you can’t love Test cricket.
‘We always want to give ourselves the best opportunity to win but sometimes you have to lose to really appreciate how good it is to win. And if you are going to lose then it’s better to do it in games like that. I just think everyone’s appreciating this for what it was. It was just a great game to be part of.’
That’s not to say it wasn’t heart-breaking to see Jimmy Anderson fall to a tiny tickle down the legside with two runs needed after joining Jack Leach with seven required and duly dancing down the wicket and smashing Neil Wagner through long on for four of them.
It was only ahead of what became a drawn series that Anderson was being asked about England’s apparent quest for him to score the winning runs in a Test, apparently offering him the chance to go in earlier last summer when a match was almost won.
The 40-year-old was having none of it then, saying ‘I really have no desire to hit the winning runs in a Test. I like bowling.’ But how he would have loved to do so when that chance actually came against all expectations in front of a packed Basin Reserve.
Even Anderson’s reaction after being dismissed was revealing. He did stop to ask umpire Chris Gaffaney why he had not called a wide by Wagner from the previous ball – England had a legitimate case but no-one was moaning about it afterwards – but then Anderson was quick to shake the hands of the New Zealand players and, yes, even smile. ‘He just enjoyed the whole thing,’ said Stokes.
Contrast that to Anderson’s reaction nine years ago when he was in tears after getting out against Sri Lanka at Headingley when he seemed to have secured merely a draw. Make no mistake, this matters to Anderson, but he can see the wider picture now too.
We should recall some of the last day drama. England lost four wickets in the first hour to leave New Zealand firm favourites, Joe Root somehow running out the new superstar Harry Brook before he had even faced a ball. It was to prove the most decisive moment of many of them throughout this final Test.
But the former England captain in Root joined with his successor Stokes in a partnership of 121 that seemed certain to swing the game in England’s favour before both were dismissed pulling unwisely in four balls from Neil Wagner to leave 57 still required.
That was when Ben Foakes, making a very strong case to stay in this England side when Jonny Bairstow returns, took over and marshalled the tail brilliantly, taking his side to within seven of victory before he too fell pulling, this time well caught by Wagner off Tim Southee.
Anderson played the shot of his life off Wagner to take England to the brink but it was to prove a case of so near and yet so far, New Zealand enjoying the sort of finale they were on the wrong side of when England won ‘by the barest of margins’ in the 2019 World Cup final.
England could, of course, have batted their opponents out of the game had they not enforced the follow on. Any regrets, Ben? ‘I thought it was the right decision thinking back to the way we ran through the New Zealand top order in the previous three innings,’ said Stokes.
‘The wicket was doing plenty, it was overcast and it seemed as if it wasn’t going to deteriorate over the last couple of days. If we find ourselves in that position again I’ll have to think about it but, chasing 258, we’ll probably just look back as a batting group and say we weren’t good enough.’
The run out of Harry Brook without facing a ball was a hugely decisive moment in the game
Anderson was quick to shake the New Zealand players’s hands and even smile despite defeat
England continued their transformation in New Zealand and can leave with plenty of positives
TOP SPIN ON THE TEST
New Zealand are just the fourth team in history to win a Test match after being forced to follow-on…
1894, Sydney — England beat Australia by 10 runs
1981, Headingley — England beat Australia by 18 runs n 2001, Kolkata — India beat Australia by 171 runs
2023, Wellington — New Zealand beat England by one run.
It was just the second time in history that a Test match has been won by a single run, after West Indies beat Australia in 1993, in Adelaide.
New Zealand have won every home Test in which Kane Williamson has scored a century. This was his first since Pakistan in 2021.
Neil Wagner’s first innings was the second-worst economy rate in Test history (minimum 10 overs), with figures of 2-110. In the second innings, he guided New Zealand to a great victory, with 4-62 including the winning wicket of Jimmy Anderson!
This was just the second Test defeat for England under the Ben Stokes-Brendon McCullum leadership axis. Their record: WWWWLWWWWWWL.
LEADING RUN SCORERS IN THE SERIES
Harry Brook, 329 runs at 82.25
Joe Root, 319 runs at 106.33
LEADING WICKET TAKERS IN THE SERIES
Neil Wagner, 11
James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Jack Leach, 10
England have been plenty good enough over the last year and their transformation has continued in New Zealand with the big one against Australia this summer coming into view.
‘This ethos and the way we now play won’t change when the pressure really does ramp up within the Ashes,’ promised Stokes. ‘I’m very excited about that challenge.’
So he should be. So should all of us. Nobody present here today or following from afar can have failed to have been utterly transfixed by this Test and, frankly, all of the Tests England are playing right now.
And that, in the face of the march of the franchises and the quest for a ‘new’ cricketing audience concentrated on Twenty20 and the Hundred, can only be a good thing.