New Zealand’s much beleaguered cricketers stand on the cusp of an unexpected series win against England, requiring just six more wickets on the final day of the third Test in Auckland.
Not that victory is at all assured – England have capable batsmen still to come and the drop-in pitch, while showing normal fifth day wear and tear, is by no means a Dehli dirtbox.
But whatever happens today, a side for which series wins against the top echelon of nations is a rarity has shown plenty to suggest that many brighter days are ahead for New Zealand Cricket.
Although the debacle of 45 all out against South Africa in Cape Town is still a recent memory, in my preview of this series I suggested that the Black Caps would be far more competitive at home against England, and so it has proved.
There are four key reasons for this.
Firstly, the performance against South Africa wasn’t as bad as it looked.
This was the world’s best attack at the top of their game, having a day out in favourable conditions.
They had similarly decimated Australia the year before and would do the same to Pakistan a few weeks later.
Secondly, New Zealand’s achilles heel has been at opening bat.
It’s fortunes in this series rested on fixing a situation where prior to this series over half of its most recent 50 opening stands hadn’t exceeded double figures.
With Martin Guptill injured, a new combination of debutant Hamish Rutherford and the experienced Peter Fulton were tried – Rutherford making 246 runs at 49.2, and Fulton 347 at 69.4, including three centuries between them.
On top of their runs, they have brought a better balance to the side.
Brendan McCullum must now surely understand that being the world’s premier number seven bat is far more enticing than playing an unnatural game trying to see off the new ball.
Thirdly I suggested that the New Zealand attack would perform much better in local conditions and would benefit from the return of Tim Southee from injury.
While Southee hasn’t landed a bag of wickets, he has tested all the batsmen and showed increasing accuracy and consistency.
Trent Boult, Neil Wagner and debut spinner Bruce Martin have all enjoyed wicket tacking spells, meaning Doug Bracewell has been unable to force his way back into the line-up.
He will surely think long and hard before hosting another house party in the week before a Test match.
Martin’s consistency fell away yesterday and he will need to step up today if New Zealand are to finish the game off. Not that it mattered as Kane Williamson stepped up, ‘Big Show’ style, to sensationally snare two late wickets with his part time off-spin.
What has impressed most about the bowling performance over the series is that an obvious bowling plan is apparent and has been mostly adhered to. Wickets have been hard to come by on unhelpful pitches but the bowlers have stayed patient and worked hard.
With Dan Vettori, Bracewell, and promising left arm quick Mitchell McClenaghan to return from injury there is real competition for bowling places – something that New Zealand has not experienced in recent memory.
The fourth factor is the integration of Ross Taylor back into the team. This team is now undeniably Hesson’s and McCullum’s, with everyone pulling in the same direction. It is to Taylor’s credit that he has shelved his own ego for the greater good.
There is no doubt that this will have not gone wryly unnoticed by Mickey Arthur and Michael Clarke as they strive to impose their standards on their team.
The surprising variable has been the quality of the opposition. England turned up on day one in Dunedin clearly mentally unprepared for Test cricket and were lucky to come away with a weather influenced draw.
Wellington was a far more assured performance with both bat and ball, and the result was reversed – the rain this time preventing an England win.
So to Auckland and basically a resetting of the clock – a one-off contest for the series win on a pitch with a little more life in it than the first two.
In retrospect Alistair Cook blew the toss, inserting New Zealand who finished the day at 250/1, effectively taking an England win out of the equation.
It was slow going by Fulton and Williamson but it was assured and mature. This was a contrast to recent series marked by batsmen too hasty to throw their innings away with overly extravagant shots.
Day three, however, was a surprising capitulation.
No matter how well New Zealand bowled this was not a 204 all out pitch. Despite a nervous last session with the bat, New Zealand was never going to blow a 239 first innings lead in batting England out of the game.
Fulton and McCullum’s superb counter attack yesterday morning cemented this advantage and thus set the scene for the bowlers.
Ten wickets in five-and-a-half sessions for the series win.
What Australia will take out of this series is that Swann is an important factor in this England team.
Panesar has tried hard but has lacked penetration, and offers nothing like the threat of the Indian spin attack.
Steve Finn was almost unplayable in the limited overs games, but failed to find sideways movement in all of the Tests.
He and Broad remain quality bowlers but if Jimmy Anderson can be seen off by patient and hard working batsmen, then there will be runs to be had.
Cook, Trott, Bell, Pietersen and Root have all underwhelmed with the bat, but one suspects that they still have plenty of runs left in them for the Ashes series.
One also suspects that New Zealand have snuck under England’s guard, showing tenacity and consistency in their performance.
Whatever the fallout from India, I doubt England will make the same mistake against Australia.
But for now, this isn’t about Australia, or even England for that matter.
If New Zealand hold their nerve they will win. 90 overs for six wickets.
If they don’t they will be frustrated at the missed opportunity but still come away very satisfied about dominating a good side. Not just in a one-off game like Hobart was, but across a whole series.
As a viewer, the shame is that this is only a three-Test series.
But if McCullum and his bowlers can put in one more last effort they will happily pull stumps and send England home with plenty of soul searching to do.