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Thursday, October 6, 2022

England vs New Zealand: Ben Stokes and Joe Root set up fitting finale to thrilling First Test

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B

en Stokes against New Zealand, at Lord’s. It is never dull. To the 2015 Test and the 2019 World Cup final, we can add a frenetic knock of 54 in the fourth innings of his first match as England’s official Test captain.

This innings was Stokes at his chaotic worst and clinical best – within minutes of one another. It was one that gave England fans hope and left them despairing, and was perhaps an emblem of their performance as a whole across the first three days.

England, chasing 277, needed 201 more when Stokes appeared to be the fifth wicket to fall, only to be reprieved by a Colin de Grandhomme no-ball, midway through the afternoon session. And they needed 118 when he actually had to go, having played an equally brainless shot, trying to upper cut the outstanding Kyle Jamieson.

The game was on a knife edge, but that was a bitter blow. Joe Root, who Stokes succeeded as captain, was still there on 34, having unobtrusively glided along in his slipstream. He continued in that vain until stumps, when England were 61 short of their target, and Root was 23 short of his first fourth innings Test hundred and 10,000 Test runs.

The third day was another of high drama, with England taking three wickets in three Stuart Broad balls early on as New Zealand lost their last six for just 34.

AFP via Getty Images

But for pure watchability nothing could top every ball of Stokes’ effort. He had one from 19 very uncomfortable balls when when he advanced at de Grandhomme’s modest medium-pace and swiped. The ball cannoned off the inside edge of his flailing bat and into his stumps.

Stokes, metres out of his ground, threw his head back in despair, and set off for the Pavilion. On the way he said a few words to himself, and shadow-batted the shot he had tried to play.

Stokes was pretty close to the boundary, with only the roaming camera for company, when Michael Gough, the standing umpire, was asked to stick his arm out and call a no-ball by Paul Reiffell, on TV duties. Saturday was Stokes’s 31st birthday; de Grandhomme had given him a gift.

Many of the crowd realised before England’s captain, who turned on his heels, and rejoined Root for a punch of gloves and a wry smile. Stokes, enjoying an outrageous slice of luck, against New Zealand, at Lord’s? Surely not.

Stokes’ day would improve, but de Grandhomme’s did not. The no-ball was the second in a series of three unfortunate events. The first had seen him run out as England appealed in vain to have him given out lbw first ball, and the third saw him pull out in his run-up. He was sent for an MRI scan on a heel injury.

When de Grandhomme overstepped, Stokes was batting horribly. There had already been a series of swishes as he moved around the crease as if batting on hot coals, and soon he was having a good go at running himself out, then slicing over the slips.

Getty Images

He settled, and made it to tea. By then, he had launched Ajaz Patel, bowling his first over of the match, for six into the Grandstand. Two more would follow when Kane Williamson dared bowl his slow left-armer again, with that over going for 17. There were hard cuts off Trent Boult and Jamieson was dealt with comfortably, until the moment of madness that brought about his demise. The ball was too close to upper cut, a stroke that never looked a value play.

That was not England’s first gruesome dismissal of the day. Alex Lees, having looked as fluent as at any time at Test level, simply left a Jamieson inswinger, and departed for between 20 and 31 for the sixth successive innings. Boult fizzed one through Ollie Pope’s gate, while Jonny Bairstow dragged Jamieson onto his stumps. Bairstow had started breezily, but was dragged into a battle and could not resist a swish at what surely would have been the final ball of the spell. It was not smart cricket.

Zak Crawley was alone in his blamelessness, well worked over by Jamieson, then caught in the cordon.

Root watched the carnage unfold – the first four wickets falling for 38, then Stokes’ frenetic innings – but was soon batting beautifully. When Stokes fell, he busily shared an unbeaten 57 with Ben Foakes, for whom this is an important innings.

Victory, again, felt a real possibility. With a dodgy weather forecast and a long tail, Root remains utterly central to England’s hopes. Either way, a thrilling game is nearing a thrilling conclusion.

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