Strong partnerships have defined series, but England's openers are not among them

·4 min read
Strong partnerships have defined series, but England's openers are not among them - GETTY IMAGES
Strong partnerships have defined series, but England's openers are not among them - GETTY IMAGES

Three batting partnerships marked the penultimate day of a Test series which may prove in hindsight to have been nothing less than epoch-making in terms of English cricket. Two of these partnerships are functioning, the third has yet to gel.

The partnership between Ollie Pope and Joe Root of 132 in only 26.5 overs, which has sped England towards the seventh highest run-chase in Tests in England, has been a combination of similar styles. They could have been called orthodox styles, except that Root’s inner imp - freed of captaincy - has started reverse-ramping at Trent Bridge and reverse-sweeping here.

Pope is almost as much a reincarnation of Root as he is of Ian Bell, a younger and shorter version of the modern master. As the sincerest form of flattery Pope too no doubt, when consolidated at number three, will be reverse-hitting sixes in Test cricket.

And while England’s original style of batting has been billed as entertainment by the new leadership team of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, this is no doubt intended to throw opponents like Australia off the scent. What England are doing is not for fun but to intimidate, batting that shocks and awes and establishes psychological superiority. Neil Wagner had plenty to say when he began this match with a double-wicket maiden but not after Root, with his reverse-sweep, had made him look like a slower version of Jack Leach.

In a position that would once have been viewed as precarious, 51 for two, Pope and Root launched their third-wicket stand which broke the back of England’s task by the close. Save for that six, England’s batsmen here, including Jonny Bairstow, have been exploiting their local knowledge, hitting fours over all the bare pitches that comprise the vast “square”, not risking the sixes they pounded over the shorter boundaries at Trent Bridge. Inspired, yes, and rational too.

The second partnership that shaped the day was the final instalment of the Daryl Mitchell and Tom Blundell Show. In the six New Zealand innings of this series they have staged four century stands; in tandem at the crease the pair have scored 724 runs off 236.1 overs. In this campaign England have sped like tanks across the North African desert, until they have come to the Mitchell-Blundell pyramid.

Daryl Mitchell and Tom Blundell of New Zealand walk off after Day One of the Third LV= Insurance Test Match between England and New Zealand at Headingley on June 23, 2022 in Leeds, England. - GETTY IMAGES
Daryl Mitchell and Tom Blundell of New Zealand walk off after Day One of the Third LV= Insurance Test Match between England and New Zealand at Headingley on June 23, 2022 in Leeds, England. - GETTY IMAGES

“Fire and Ice,” New Zealand’s media manager Willy Nicholls, the brother of Henry, calls them. They are opposites who complement each other. Mitchell is the driver in every sense, Blundell the defender and deflector.

It will be cruel on Mitchell if he goes home on the back of a 3-0 defeat, even if he takes the player of the series award with him. It was less than three years ago that Mitchell made his Test debut against England at Hamilton, an unremarkable medium-pacer who has since become an outstanding batsman, adding one-percenters from other sports to his cricket.

England did not bowl full enough at Blundell. Like all keepers he has been adept at cut and pull, so the dismissal with the short ball at Trent Bridge was a one-off red herring. When he tried a straight-drive during his valiant 88* the ball ended up in his crease, his head falling over, his eyes not level but, boy, has he fought. And if they are opposites in style, Mitchell and Blundell have patience in common: the patience of players forced to wait for their chance, Mitchell by Colin de Grandhomme, Blundell by BJ Watling.

The partnership which has yet to gel is that of England’s opening pair. In 12 attempts, Alex Lees and Zak Crawley have yet to manage an opening stand of 60. Even for players who are new to each other, their communication is poor.

The over before the run-out, Crawley was on the floor after attempting a single that did not exist. Once he had nailed his off-drive, Crawley was too intent on admiring it to be aware of his partner’s over-commitment to a single; but he had done England the service of striking Trent Boult for four overs in one over to set the tone of this run-chase.

Lees and Crawley are left- and right-handed but perhaps too similar: both tall, one with the first name of Zak and the other with a second name of Zac. It would be good if Brendon McCullum, for his next trick, can sort their calling out before Friday when England go again, all too soon, against India.

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