New Zealand 225 for 5 (Mitchell 78*, Blundell 45*) vs England
It didn’t end up being the day of ascendancy that New Zealand might have envisaged after winning the toss in prime batting conditions, but at least in the continuation of a now-familiar middle-order alliance, it proved to be one in which England were made to work for their breakthroughs, on a day in which their luckiest break of the series couldn’t quite atone for the key moments that got away.
For Leach, who had already struck with his first ball of the day to trap Will Young lbw, the fluke was due reward for his best day’s work of the series, and it was the cue too for a diligent afternoon of holding-pattern spin bowling, as he twirled his way through 23 consecutive overs either side of tea, for the commendable tight figures of 1 for 54, and 2 for 75 all told.
And yet, to judge by the serenity with which Mitchell and Blundell eased through to stumps, England would surely have traded that moment of fortune for a chance to revisit the day’s key flashpoint – a huge mid-afternoon appeal for lbw against Mitchell, on 8 at the time, as Matt Potts thudded an inswinger into his front pad in the midsts of another energetic day’s work.
Hawk-Eye showed that the ball would have been hitting middle and leg, but Ben Stokes declined to send the decision upstairs – perhaps as a consequence of a moment, in Potts’ previous spell, when England had lost a review in similar circumstances, when the left-handed Nicholls, on 4, was adjudged by the third umpire Aleem Dar to have inside-edged another inswinger that would have been striking leg stump.
Either way, Mitchell’s let-off seemed to be the cue for him to up the ante, particularly against Leach, whom he struck for two fours and a big straight six into the Football Stand in the space of six balls, for all that the spinner was already extracting more turn and bounce than he was able to produce in the whole of the Trent Bridge Test.
However, with the arrival of Blundell after tea, Mitchell seemed happy to dial his aggression back once more, as the pair settled into the familiar accumulative pattern that had successfully reinflated their prospects already in the series, most particularly in the second innings at Lord’s.
Mitchell allowed himself one significant shot in anger in the rest of his day’s work, a superb lofted drive off Leach to bring up his fifty with a six over long-off, and a single to midwicket in Leach’s final over of the day took him to his overnight 78 not out, as well as bringing up the pair’s third century stand of the series. Blundell for his part reached the close on 45 not out from 108 balls – following directly on from his 96 at Lord’s and his 106 at Trent Bridge, in another indomitably solid day’s work.
England, nevertheless, could be broadly satisfied with their efforts. Having clattered along at close to 4 an over in their first innings at Trent Bridge, New Zealand’s close-of-play 225 for 5, with the new ball still shiny, meant that they were still some way short of making full use of Kane Williamson’s correct call at the toss.
Under the previous regime, Broad – who turns 36 on Friday – might well have been rested for this fixture, after back-to-back matches at Lord’s and Trent Bridge, and with the delayed fifth Test against India looming large at Edgbaston next week. However, with his sidekick James Anderson already out of contention with an ankle niggle, Broad’s importance as England’s senior seamer was plain to see, right from an exemplary and successful first over that claimed the scalp of Latham for a duck.
After losing the toss and being asked to bowl first on a dauntingly straw-coloured pitch, Broad had the left-handed Latham in his sights from the outset, as he hammered a good length from round the wicket in his now-habitual fashion. Latham left his first four balls, but after being drawn forward to block the fifth, he was caught perfectly in two minds by the coup de grace, a length ball on off stump that seamed just enough to take the edge and fly through to Joe Root at first slip.
It was another failure in this series for Latham, whose highest score in five outings is 26. But New Zealand’s predicament could have been even worse one Broad delivery later, when Kane Williamson – taking back over from Latham as captain after missing the second Test with Covid – fenced down the leg side and inches past the diving wicketkeeper Ben Foakes, in what had been a deliberate ploy to tuck him up, seeing as Ollie Pope had just been posted at leg slip.
At the other end, Young was never allowed to settle into his stay. After a firm back-foot punch off Potts had brought up his first boundary, Young almost lost his middle stump to an ill-judged pull that skidded through lower than anticipated, and on 8, he might have run himself out with a quick single to mid-on, where Potts’ pick-up-and-shy flew inches wide of the stumps.
But, having seen off Overton’s brisk-if-nervy first over with another cut for four, and survived an inside-edge into his back pad off Broad, Young got himself into a fatal tangle as Leach entered the attack on the hour mark and made an immediate impression.
Leach had endured a torrid series to date – his first home Test for three years at Lord’s lasted less than six overs as he was subbed out of the match with concussion, while he returned match figures of 3 for 226 at Trent Bridge in a display that lacked penetration or control.
However, with England seeking to accentuate every available positive under the new team management of Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes, Leach was able to lap up every ounce of acclaim from a grateful Headingley crowd, who will never forget his starring role on his last appearance before them in 2019, when his crucial 1 not out in partnership with Stokes helped seal England’s thrilling one-wicket Ashes win.
He’d already had one standing ovation for his first act of the match, a regulation piece of fielding at fine leg. But the second was far more heartfelt, as he nailed the perfect line and length from round the wicket to Young, dipping the ball into a tangle of pads and extracting the lbw verdict from umpire Marais Erasmus. Young reviewed, but to no avail – he’d got his bat stuck behind his pad on impact as Hawk-Eye showed the ball to be smashing middle stump.
At 35 for 2, New Zealand’s decision to bat first was looking perilous. But from the outset of their partnership, Williamson and Conway took a conscious decision to put the pressure back on Leach. Conway’s third delivery was clubbed through the covers for four, before Williamson – after a cautious start to his innings – took the spinner on with two fours in four balls, the first a launch over mid-off that only just cleared the backtracking fielder.
Overton’s first five-over spell was seen off for 17 – with a top speed at this stage in the region of 88mph, though he would touch 90mph in the evening session. Broad, however, was now primed to return for his second spell, and once again, he struck the crucial blow with the final ball of his initial over. The key delivery this time was his fifth, a hooping late inswinger that crashed into Williamson’s thigh pad. His follow-up was back in the off-stump channel, but held its line this time, as Williamson dangled fractionally outside his eyeline and snicked a thin edge through to Foakes.
One notable absence for England was that of Stokes, whose ability to swing the old ball might have been particularly useful in the afternoon session. He arrived at Headingley a day late after a bout of illness, and he had been struggling with a knee injury in the latter stages of his match-sealing innings at Trent Bridge. But he was busy throughout regardless, marshalling his troops with typical vigour, even if his best intentions were ultimately thwarted by New Zealand’s usual suspects.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket