Eng v NZ 3rd Test – ‘It’s a stupid game we’re playing’

“It’s out! It’s out!” Ben Stokes yelled at a stunned Jack Leach, who was dizzy with confused excitement. Henry Nicholls had to drag himself away after a bizarre, surreal layoff that seemed to sum up New Zealand’s tour of England. It’s supposed to be black cats, not black caps, that bring bad luck.
Nicholls’ innings had been a grind, one in which he had only made 19 runs in over two hours as tee time approached. He had attracted 40 on less than two and an over with Daryl Mitchell, walking and defending with caution and surviving multiple plays-and-misses outside of his off stump. It hadn’t been pretty, but after winning the toss and stumbling to 83 for 4, New Zealand didn’t care about aesthetics.

With five balls remaining off the tee, Leach flipped and Nicholls flapped to turn the ball into a half-volley, drifting slightly up and down the ground. Mitchell, on the non-striker end, flinched and tried to drag his racquet away from the line of the ball but somehow managed to deflect it straight down the middle to Alex Lees.

“It’s just one of those unfortunate things,” said Luke Ronchi, New Zealand’s batting coach. “Daryl just went back to how he’s been doing it all along.” As Ronchi left the room, his old Somerset teammate, Leach, repeated another of his phrases: “I like those little quirks,” he shared a grin.

“I didn’t even know if that was allowed,” Leach added. “I don’t really like the dismissal, but I felt like I bowled Nicholls pretty well beforehand…you just have to take it. It’s a stupid game, isn’t it? That made me think: It’s a stupid game we’re playing.”

Lucky for New Zealand when it comes to distracting stray bats working against them; at least Trent Boult could see the funny side of Lord’s as Stokes managed to recreate himself almost entirely involuntarily

“Tragedy is when I stub my toe. Comedy is falling into an open manhole and dying,” comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks once said, and England laughed. This was a black comedy moment for New Zealand – black cap comedy, if you will – and one that felt grimly familiar on a tour that’s stumbled from one calamity to another.

A year to the day New Zealand celebrated in the Ageas Bowl after Ross Taylor clipped winning runs from his pads to seal victory at the inaugural World Test Championship. They dominated from the first session of the first Test at Lord’s, beating England 1-0 and then defeating India to put the finishing touches on their journey from hopeless to world best.

This tour was a stark contrast: from the moment the touring group landed in the UK, just about everything that could have gone wrong seems to have gone wrong. On day five of the trip, Nicholls tested positive for Covid-19, as did Blair Tickner and bowling coach Shane Jurgensen, and the virus has been a constant nuisance at camp ever since.

Injuries ripped the heart out of the team that beat India last year: the retired Taylor and BJ Watling were cleverly replaced by Mitchell and Tom Blundell, but defeats of Colin de Grandhomme and Kyle Jamieson turned the first and second Tests respectively . Nicholls’ sacking even put de Grandhomme’s day of horrors at Lord’s into perspective – ironically he ran out, denied Stokes’ wicket by a forefoot no-ball and hobbled away with a foot injury.

Mitchell, meanwhile, is having the worst best streak of his — or almost anyone’s — career: he’s averaging a staggering 150.33, but somehow seems to have spent much of the last three weeks dropping catches on slips and his partners too run . At least he had a lucky moment today. He was not released on the 8th when Matthew Potts’ inswinger crashed into his pad and England decided not to review the decision on the field, only to confirm by tracing the ball that it would have crashed in the middle and leg.

In the end, his partnership with Blundell was worth 102, their tally in the series’ third century, and Stoke’s non-rating had cost 70 runs. New Zealand are clearly not where they would have liked to have been after deciding to bat first, but at least they had a wicketless evening session to hold on to: without it, they would face the prospect of a whitewash on the anniversary of their crowning stare down moments .

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