There are two days remaining in what has been an enthralling first Test series of the summer and yet the way England are looking to play their cricket under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum right now, they may well look to finish it in one.
It was not until a rain-affected final session that such thoughts began to percolate either. Jonny Bairstow’s sublime 162 and Jamie Overton’s ultimately gut-wrenching 97 from No 8 had stuck a 360 all out on the board in the morning for a 31-run first-innings lead, only for New Zealand’s top order seemingly to cool their jets.
The tourists had reached 125 for one at tea, Tom Latham having rediscovered his touch at the end of a low-key tour with 72 and Kane Williamson, another yet to fire, on 37. The ever-growing beer snake in the Western Terrace was testament to how well the pair had repelled all comers, even if the former had earned a life before the break when Joe Root’s grassed catch at slip denied Stuart Broad his 550th Test wicket.
But in the first over after the resumption Overton changed the complexion once more, steaming in from the Football Stand End and nicking off Latham with his first ball. As well as presenting Bairstow with a simple catch on his return to wicketkeeping duties – Ben Foakes the absent man with a stiff back – this moment of delight for Overton was the first of four telling holes punctured in New Zealand’s hull.
The Black Caps are now set to resume on 168 for five first thing, some 137 runs ahead, with Daryl Mitchell (5) and Tom Blundell (4) once again in situ. But with England so emboldened after chasing down 299 runs at a canter at Trent Bridge, the pair will likely need to deliver their fourth century stand of the series – and a big one at that – to deny the hosts a first clean sweep in 11 years.
While England’s buccaneering approach with the bat has been the theme of the Stokes-McCullum axis thus far, the prospect of a 3-0 scoreline owes much to a third day in the field in which they never lost heart, their captain juggled his resources shrewdly (even if his own bowling leaked runs) and two newcomers came to the fore.
As well as Overton’s removal of Latham, and the vicious bouncer that felled Devon Conway first ball, there were two telling strikes for Matt Potts. The 23-year-old was initially snubbed for new-ball duties – Stokes turning to Jack Leach before lunch and making him the first England spinner to open the bowling at home since Graeme Swann in 2009 – but continued a fine Test not entirely reflected by his returns.
First to go was Will Young for eight after lunch, set up with a series of length balls before a fuller one flew to third slip. This could not match his later scalp, however, Potts returning in the final session and teasing an edge from Williamson on 48. Potts, fit as a butcher’s dog and tenacious with the ball, is making quite the impression.
With Root removing Conway via a stunning reflex bat-pad catch from Ollie Pope at short-leg – the former captain bowling only because of bad light that proceeded a rain delay – and Leach then teasing a low return catch from Henry Nicholls before the early close for his sixth wicket of the match, England were once again in the ascendancy.
It had been a characterful response from New Zealand initially and a run-rate of 3.2 per over felt becalmed only because of what had come before. England had continued their freewheeling comeback from 55 for six on the second afternoon with yet more antics, adding 96 runs to their overnight 264 for six in just 18 overs.
Overton must have endured a fretful night, his head having hit the pillow on 89 not out with thoughts of becoming the 21st England cricketer to make a century on Test debut swirling; had the 28-year-old got over the line, he would have joined WG Grace back in 1880 as the only England player to combine this feat with a wicket, too.
But gone was the player who had wielded his bat like a lumberjack the previous day, Overton beaten repeatedly by Trent Boult, squeezing one four through the covers but ultimately edging the left-armer to slip three short of the milestone. As he trudged off the field disconsolate, over skipped Bairstow to place an arm around his shoulder.
The Yorkshireman’s own touch had not deserted him en route to a third Test score of 150 – his adoring home supporters meeting this with an early roar – but he soon took a back seat, Broad carving out a 36-ball 42 from No 9 that saw him dominate the strike and bat away every question asked. Move over, Mick Lynch.
Broad typically cleared the front leg to hit six fours and two mighty sixes before eventually falling to a bail-trimmer from Tim Southee. Bairstow soon holed out off the spin of Michael Bracewell amid the last rites before returning to the dressing room to dig out the wicketkeeping gloves he so loves to don.
Through his brilliance England had added a remarkable 305 runs from six wickets down – a feat bettered only twice before in their history – and scored at such a lick there should be oodles of time for their eventual run chase. But then, whatever the target and however long they have, this lot will look to do it in a hurry.