Advantage, New Zealand. On moving day in the third test against England, they charged into position and despite some late speed wobbles remain favourites to clinch a scarcely believable series victory over the world's No 2 team.
It's no done deal against a team of world-class scrappers, but New Zealand's chances hold more appeal than the visitors' with two days to play at Eden Park. And with two more days of fine weather forecast, a result seems likely to wrap up a dour but see-sawing series where the hosts have admirably punched above their weight.
Teetering at 35-3 in their second innings, New Zealand are 274 in front and with a solid first hour then some Brendon McCullum swipes, a chase of 400-plus should be mighty difficult. Especially if the ball keeps swinging for Trent Boult and Tim Southee and nipping variably off the hard, dry surface.
Twenty-two wickets tumbled over the weekend after New Zealand racked up 250-1 on day one as Eden Park's reputation for producing cracking test matches continued, seven years on from the previous one.
Boult, New Zealand's star with a career-best 6-68 in England's poor first innings of 204, was excited about the "up and down" nature of the drop-in pitch. Captain McCullum didn't enforce the follow-on despite England trailing by 239. Few captains do these days and Alastair Cook had his hand forced by impending rain in Wellington.
McCullum's decision was backed by the bowlers who put their feet up before one final push for New Zealand's first series win over England in 14 years.
"We've bowled a lot of overs. To get a rest in where we could and then use these next two days as best we could was crucial," Boult said.
"We just need to press on tomorrow. I don't think 30-3 was in the plan but I think to have a 280-run lead is a pretty good position to be in."
Still, the familiar third innings collapse had the New Zealanders in the crowd of a tick over 10,000 drawing breath sharply. New Zealand's last big chance to beat England in a test, in Manchester in 2008, saw them lose by six wickets after leading by 179 on the first innings. They collapsed for 114 in their second dig and it was game over.
At 8-3 yesterday, with Stuart Broad breathing fire and Hamish Rutherford, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor back in the shed, it was hide behind the couch material.
Opener Peter Fulton, backing up from his maiden test century, provided the steady hand and resumes battle tomorrow with Dean Brownlie needing to push the pace if there's no early calamity.
Gloveman and vice-captain Matt Prior topscored with a counter-attacking 73, either side of a slump to 72-5, then a loss of their last five wickets for 31.
"We didn't bat well and credit to the New Zealand bowlers, they bowled in good areas. Trent ended up with the most wickets but Tim Southee bowled a couple of good spells and hats off to them," Prior said.
England were behind the eight-ball, in Prior's words, but their pacemen gave them hope.
"We're now in a position where we need a bit of luck and a lot of skill, but if we come in tomorrow morning and get early wickets, who knows, it could still be a good day. We're going to have to bat a lot better but we can chase these runs."
In the cavernous rugby stadium on another fine, still day, the ball swung. It hadn't hooped as much for New Zealand's bowlers since their test win over Sri Lanka in Colombo in November, and they relished it.
Southee (3-44) needed a big performance and he followed Boult's lead. Having bowled too wide on Saturday he mixed his stock outswinger with some quicker ones attacking the stumps. He trapped Nick Compton and Ian Bell in front in a magical first hour for the hosts.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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