Test cricket returned to English shores once again with a match at Lord’s marking the start of the English Test summer. It also marked the beginning of a new era for England with Ben Stokes as red-ball captain and Brendon McCullum as head coach, as England took on New Zealand with two Kiwis at the helm.
Fittingly, the England versus New Zealand Test match turned out to be a thriller with more twists and turns than a Jeffery Archer novel, keeping spectators forever at the edge of their seats.
On a chaotic first day, 17 wickets tumbled as New Zealand crashed to 132 all out, recovering somewhat from 36 for 6, while England in reply, ended the day tottering at 116 for 7.
In between, there was a poignant moment at the end of the 23rd over of the morning as the entire stadium stood up to honour the memory of the great Shane Warne and applauded for 23 seconds. This was in keeping with the number 23 that the great man wore on his shirt. Surely there will never be another one quite like him, ever.
Thirty-nine-year-old James Anderson playing his 170th Test and 23-year-old debutant Matthew Potts his first, picked up four wickets each, with Potts returning dream figures of 4 for 13. He was to pick up another three in the second innings to make it a hugely satisfying start to his Test career.
Once again it was the lethal English combination of ‘in the air and off the seam’ movement of the Dukes red ball that produced the edges and triggered the carnage.
In contrast, England made a strong start to their innings for a change and were cruising at 75 for 1 with Zak Crawley playing a characteristic, free-stroking knock.
But this was to soon become 100 for 7 as the all too familiar England batting collapse of recent times unfolded yet again with a sickening sense of deja vu, this time at the hands of the New Zealand quicks Trent Boult and Tim Southee, before finally ending up in a nine-run first-innings lead for England.
The drama continued with the Black Caps collapsing again to 56 for 4 in their second innings and a two-and-half day finish looked well on the cards. Then came a brilliant 195-run fifth-wicket stand between Daryl Mitchell and wicket-keeper Tom Blundell, to stem the rot and steer the Kiwis to safe waters again.
This partnership was reminiscent of the double-century stand between Litton Das and Mushfiqur Rahim in the recent Sri Lanka-Bangladesh Test match at Mirpur, with the scorecard for both these innings making similar reading.
It was the stuff of dreams that makes Test cricket so special with its constant ups and downs, batting collapses and recoveries, abject surrender and strong fightbacks. As long as these keep happening, and spectators swing between hope and despair, there is hope for Test cricket and it is alive and well.
With both batsmen unbeaten in their 90s at close of play on the second day and a big lead building up in a low scoring match, it was England who now looked in trouble, given their recent dismal batting history.
But true to the see-sawing nature of the cricket in this match, the third morning saw a dramatic change of fortunes yet again, as New Zealand collapsed, leaving England 277 to chase in the fourth innings. This could so easily have easily been 350-plus, had the third morning, Stuart Broad inspired new-ball collapse, not happened.
New Zealand lost their last six second-innings wickets for just 34 runs after England took the second new ball, one over into the third day’s play.
Daryl Mitchell reached his century in the first over of the day and as the visitors extended their lead, England’s record of just one win in their last 17 Test matches looked set to continue.
But when Stuart Broad induced an outside edge from him soon after, there came a burst of madness, as three wickets fell in three balls and the game suddenly turned on its head. The Kiwis plummeted from a comfortable 251/4 to 265 for 8 in the space of three overs.
Between the two of them, James Anderson and Stuart Broad picked up 10 wickets in the match, showcasing yet again, the timeless quality of their partnership, especially in English conditions, with the red Dukes ball in hand.
A nail-biting finish now loomed after three action-packed days and at stumps on an eventful third day, England needed another 61 runs to win, while the Black Caps needed five more wickets to go one-up in the three-match series, in a match that had seldom seen a dull moment.
The biggest comfort for England was that Joe Root was still there on 77, playing yet another stylish knock under pressure. And as the gripping first Test headed towards a tense finish, English hopes rode firmly on his shoulders, yet again.
For the Kiwis, Kyle Jamieson seemed on his way to yet another five-wicket haul in his short Test career, having picked up four wickets in a spell of sustained hostility.
Earlier, they had bowled themselves to a position of strength in the England second innings and seemed well on course to a victory, when Ben Stokes played a wild shot, dragging a ball from Colin de Grandhomme onto his stumps. As the England captain walked away dejectedly with his side in tatters, the replays showed it to be a no-ball.
Like so often in the past, the Gods had conspired to give him another chance.
A wicket at that stage would have reduced England to 69 for five, with Joe Root and the defensive Ben Foakes in the middle and only the bowlers still to come, and would have put New Zealand firmly in the driver’s seat.
As it turned out though, Grandhomme had overstepped marginally, as picked up in the replays and Ben Stokes was called back by the umpires. He went on to add 90 priceless runs with Root for the fifth wicket, before being dismissed and by then England had sailed into much safer waters. On such small margins do destinies rest in this game.
On the fourth morning, England resumed at 216 for five, 61 runs short of a win that would act as an instant booster to their hopes of reviving their plummeting Test match reputation. But they were also just one ball away from disaster if Joe Root were to go early. It remained to be seen to see if there would be a final ‘twist in the tail’ in this topsy-turvy game.
But England for once, brushed aside the cobwebs of self-doubt as wicketkeeper Ben Foakes stepped up to play a confident, positive knock that took away the pressure from Joe Root. The wicket seemed to playing easy and the ball not doing much.
As the crucial century partnership came up for the sixth wicket, Root moved to his 26th Test hundred and climbed the mountain of 10000 Test runs, taking his place amongst the greatest batsmen of all time and easing England to a much cherished, much-needed victory in the process.
This Test match could well be the turning point for England as they claw their way back to becoming serious contenders in Test cricket again, even though their batting woes seem unlikely to go away just yet.
But this could be a new beginning, in many ways.
(The writer is a former first-class cricketer and a retired Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force. Views are personal)