Cricket days like this are heaven-sent. Sunlit Lord’s, chattering crowd, shirtsleeve order in the pavilion, flags hanging lifeless on the poles, and in the middle a contest to savour to start the international summer. Mid-May pitches in St John’s Wood always carry a green tinge at the start, spring sappiness still. This was no exception and if it changed colour chameleon-like as the day wore on, then so did the nature of the cricket.
At the end of an absorbing day, the scoreboard tells of England, having been put into bat by Brendon McCullum, making 354 for seven and rattling along for the most part at four runs per over throughout. That though gives only the bare bones of the drama that unfolded. After 13 overs of the day, there were 30 runs on the board and Adam Lyth, on his debut, Gary Ballance, Alastair Cook and Ian Bell back in the dressing room, victims to the trio of New Zealand pacemen.
Pessimism is the natural and persistent bedfellow of England supporters. On the dressing-room balcony the cameras homed in on Paul Farbrace, the interim coach. In front of the Mound Stand boundary, Moeen Ali, still in his training kit, batting gear carried snail-like on his back, scurried back from the nets to the pavilion, knowing that two wickets in two balls would have had him in trouble, as if trapped in one of those panic dreams that all cricketers have at some time.
He need not have worried a jot. From the rubble, the innings was resurrected by the efficiency of Joe Root, and the uncomplicated exuberance of Ben Stokes, who through the rest of the morning and long into the afternoon added 161 for the fifth wicket before he was out, ironically being careful where he had been carefree, allowing a ball from the off-spinner Mark Craig to drift down the slope and bowl him.
He received a standing ovation, and well deserved too, for the nature of a counterattack that had brought him 92 from only 94 balls, with 15 fours and a six pulled over midwicket as Matt Henry, the New Zealand debutant, thought to try to bounce him out.
For a while, Root had kept pace with Stokes and more, until after the interval when so dominant did Stokes become, hitting with brutal power through midwicket in particular, that he took a pragmatic decision to just sit back and enjoy the ride from the other end.
That Root himself did not go on to make a hundred, and a big one at that such is his appetite for runs now, was the only real surprise, but having got himself to within two runs of what would have been his seventh Test hundred, and third at Lord’s, he wafted outside off-stump, got the thinnest of inside edges and was caught behind.
The ovation for him was no less generous though, and apart from the closest of close calls when an umpire’s call on line alone saved him from lbw when 36, it was until his dismissal a chanceless exhibition of a batting skill honed since he was dropped for the Sydney Test, and hated it so much that he vowed never to experience it again. He hit 11 fours, including three in four balls off Craig to take him into lunch. Indisputably and evolutionary, in the last year, he has taken over from Ian Bell as the batting linchpin of the team.
The start was far from ideal for England, but the first morning of a Test at this time of year is always a tricky batting prospect. That McCullum put in England was no surprise, and perhaps over-intellectualising it to say he wanted to get at a captain under pressure and the other opener on debut: it was just the right decision on a surface that tends to get better as the match progresses.
Three wickets before lunch might have been a decent trade-off in the circumstance, but four was one too many. Both teams had debutants, with Mark Wood as well as Lyth receiving England caps from Andrew Strauss, the former at the expense of Chris Jordan; and Henry his from McCullum.
Lyth was off the mark perkily from his first ball, and was shaping well when he got the thinnest of edges to be caught behind, a good ball this from Tim Southee. Three wickets in 15 deliveries knocked things back further, with Ballance taken at third slip, Cook getting something on a flurry of an attempted hook and Bell beaten and bowled past the outside edge by a terrific ball from Henry.
Until the last ball of the day, England were to prosper in the evening sunlight as Jos Buttler (67) and Moeen (49 not out) added 103 for the seventh wicket either side of the second new ball, at the old-fashioned rate of a run-a-minute. Finally they may have got things right with the order of three men each capable of batting at six. Stokes though is a batsman who will bowl good fourth-seamer overs, and as such would be wasted further down the order.
And Buttler is the natural successor to Matt Prior, a player who needs time at the crease but who, in the right circumstance, will destroy opposition bowling: seven is his natural habitat. For his part Moeen is just ubiquitous, but looked totally comfortable at eight and never once came close to getting run out. The final ball of the final over did for Buttler, who was lbw to Boult's inswing: in cricket you take nothing for granted.