They have been accustomed to freak cricketing occurrences in this part of the world but as the spectators filtered out after an engrossing first day of this third Test between England and New Zealand, a good number were no doubt still computing one of the five dismissals they had witnessed.
The tourists had closed on 225 for five from – shock – 90 overs as Daryl Mitchell continued a personally golden series with an unbeaten 78 from 159 balls. But it was the right-hander’s role in the demise of Henry Nicholls on the stroke of tea which had folks rubbing their eyes in disbelief and Jack Leach, whose career has been pockmarked with misfortune, wondering whether his own worm had possibly turned.
New Zealand were 123 for four, with Nicholls having battled his way to 19 with just one more over to negotiate before a break, when Ben Stokes brought his field up to encourage the big shot. His mark couldn’t resist. But despite Nicholls seemingly getting enough on a thunderous straight drive, the ball ricocheted off the bat of Mitchell at the non-striker’s end and popped the simplest of catches to Alex Lees at mid-off.
England could scarcely believe their luck, while New Zealand were at least equipped to deal with their lack of it. Having lost the World Cup final in 2019 in part down to that famous rogue deflection off Stokes’s bat, this was almost de rigueur. Mitchell had the form and confidence to reach stumps, bringing up his half-century after tea with a booming six off Leach and forging another steadfast alliance with Tom Blundell that added 102 runs unbroken and saw the latter reach 45 not out.
Stokes had some regrets. He lost two reviews and failed to send an lbw against Mitchell upstairs when he was on eight; it was shown by Hawk-Eye to be hitting middle stump halfway up and would have made it 97 for five in the 47th over, as well as handing Matt Potts the wicket his efforts deserved. Ben Foakes, convinced the ball was sliding down leg as Mitchell missed a whip off his pads, was proved wrong.
Overall, however, it was a largely positive performance from England as they continue to ride the wave of energy that has washed in since the appointment of Stokes and Brendon McCullum as head coach and put them 2-0 up before this series finale.
Among those clearly enjoying the new regime is Stuart Broad and, after announcing on the eve of the match that he and his fiancee, Mollie King, are expecting their first child, his final day as a 35-year-old ended with figures of two for 45. Broad was leading the attack in the absence of Jimmy Anderson. And though the second new ball didn’t produce a late breakthrough, he delivered in the main, nicking off the opener Tom Latham in the first over of the day and removing Kane Williamson with peach before lunch.
There was also a maiden wicket for Jamie Overton on his first day as a Test cricketer, the Surrey fast bowler receiving his cap from twin brother Craig in the huddle first thing and bowling the dangerous Devon Conway off an inside edge after lunch. It raised the question of whether someone had ever previously dismissed a batter with the same first name as their county of birth but you will have to excuse a lack of research here.
Overton looked an uncomfortable proposition in his first outing, all told, generating speeds in the high 80s from his hulking 6ft 5in frame and hitting the splice of the bat hard. Leach, his former teammate at Somerset, could also reflect on an encouraging performance, sending down 30 overs for 75 runs, finding some of the drift that proved elusive in Nottingham and picking up two wickets.
Batting first was the obvious decision when Williamson, recovered from the bout of Covid-19 that saw him miss Trent Bridge, called correctly at the toss: the sun was out, the forecast for the weekend a bit iffy, and the surface looked bountiful. There was some early zip on offer for Broad, however, and just six balls into proceedings Williamson was walking to the crease after Latham continued a tour to rank alongside David Warner’s Ashes returns in 2019.
The dismissal could easily have been a re-run from three years ago too: Broad haring in from around the wicket, inducing a tentative poke from a left-hander and seeing the edge fly to first slip. Broad might have removed Williamson for duck, a glove down leg just evading the sprawling Foakes, but instead had to settle for the right-hander’s wicket on 31 when he set up a fine leg-cutter that this time found the keeper’s gloves.
In between Leach had winkled out Will Young lbw for 20 with his first delivery – the ball dipping into the right-hander and gripping enough to straighten – and thus New Zealand went into lunch on 65 for three. Nicholls had joined Conway but nearly departed early in the afternoon when struck in front by Potts and Stokes reviewed. Aleem Dar, the third umpire, felt compelled to stay with his on-field colleague’s decision due to a lack of conclusive evidence that bat wasn’t involved.
At the other end Conway was enjoying the attacking fields set by Stokes and unfurled some wonderful drives. But when the number four fell to some late swing from Overton on 26, and Nicholls then saw 99 balls of graft ended in freakish fashion, it required the calm heads of Mitchell and Blundell to once again dig New Zealand out of a hole, see off the second new ball after a short rain delay and leave it honours even.