Tour review

New Zealand v England, 2019-20

Lawrence Booth

Twenty20 internationals (5): New Zealand 2, England 3
Test matches (2): New Zealand 1, England 0

A little over three months after their heart-stopping World Cup final, the sides were thrown together again for a tour that rarely set the pulse racing, though was not entirely devoid of drama. With England resting several senior players for the five Twenty20 games, and the Tests sitting outside the new ICC World Championship (drawn up after the schedule for this trip had been agreed), the cricket struggled for context. The presence on the fixture list of Saxton Oval in Nelson and the equally idyllic Bay Oval in Mount Maunganui provided some consolation, while adding to the holiday atmosphere.

Attempts to hype the 20-over matches as NewZealand's chance for revenge were unconvincing, mainly because the teams got on so well. Yet, incredibly, the decider at Eden Park went to another super over, with England again the victors, though this time without a second tie-breaker. A slow-moving Test series deservedly went New Zealand's way, allowing some restoration of national pride, which had been further dented a few weeks earlier, when England dumped the All Blacks out of the rugby World Cup in Japan. For England's new head coach Chris Silverwood, victory in the Twenty20s, achieved from 2-1 down following a collapse at Nelson, was a bonus, but the two-Test series provided a weary reminder of deficiencies away from home.

The way some players spoke about the Kookaburra, they might as well have been bowling with one of the local oranges, which were only just out of season: for the first time in England's 20 Test trips to New Zealand, games started in late spring. (Their earliest previous Test here had begun on January 10, on their first visit, in 1930; this time, the Mount Maunganui Test got going on November 21. Only once had New Zealand played an earlier home Test, against Pakistan on November 17, 2016.) The upshot was England's tenth overseas series out of 12 which they failed to win since upsetting India in 2012-13. They also equalled their longest winless streak - seven Tests - in New Zealand, though the two previous sequences had consisted of 13 draws and only one defeat.

There was nothing as drastic as the 58 all out at Auckland that had marred their previous visit, early in 2018, but that was scarcely cause for celebration. England's bowlers kept things tight, but were as far away as ever from dismissing good teams in thankless conditions. Results aside, English interest centred on two men. Joe Root's captaincy had been all but rubber-stamped until the 2021-22 Ashes, with director of cricket Ashley Giles seeking stability for a side in need of direction. When Root fell in the First Test for two and 11, playing what he cheerfully described as a pair of "horrendous" dabs outside off stump, his position came under unprecedented scrutiny; for the first time since replacing Alastair Cook in 2017, he was averaging below 40 as captain. But he responded like a champion, making 226 on a sluggish track at Hamilton's Seddon Park. If he never stopped smiling, there were times when it looked a bit rictus.

Jofra Archer, meanwhile, returned to terra firma after a summer on cloud nine, taking only two wickets at 104 apiece in 82 overs, and finishing bottom of England's averages. Dropped catches didn't help: a blunder by Joe Denly on the final day at Hamilton instantly qualified as one of England's worst. But it was clear Archer had lots to learn if he was to supply Root with the cutting edge he craved overseas. The relationship between captain and star bowler had the air of a soap opera, every gesture being pored over. At different moments, Root stood accused both of overbowling Archer (in the First Test, he sent down 42 overs, 12 more than in any first-class innings) and of ignoring him altogether. He also made it clear he wanted Archer to summon the pace that had unsettled the Australians a couple of months earlier. The speed-gun readings were not in his favour, though Archer nursed a theory that the machinery was defective. Some racist heckling from a spectator at Mount Maunganui - who was later banned from attending games in New Zealand for two years - added to an uncomfortable first tour.

After the inconsistency of the Trevor Bayliss years, Silverwood had laid out a disarmingly concise wish list. He wanted batsmen to place a premium on their wickets, and rack up match-defining first-innings totals, preferably 500. And he wanted bowlers to find a way of taking 20 wickets without the aid of green grass and a red Dukes. Both requests sounded like the basic requirements of the five-day game, home or abroad; that they needed saying at all reflected the chaotic nature of England's recent Test cricket.

The players responded in patches. A first-day score of 241 for four at Mount Maunganui boded well, but it was followed by a surrender triggered by the gung-ho dismissal of Ben Stokes. New Zealand's doughty wicketkeeper B-J. Watling showed them how it should be done, compiling 205 in more than 11 hours, and adding 261 with Mitchell Santner, who scored a maiden Test hundred. England then batted fecklessly, and lost by an innings. In the Second Test, they again spurned the chance to put the game beyond New Zealand, and lost their last five wickets for 21 after reaching 455 for five. Quite simply, they lacked their opponents' ruthlessness, and possibly their patience.

The bowling - minus the recuperating Jimmy Anderson and Mark Wood, as well as Moeen Ali, who had taken a break from Tests - ranged from the persevering to the anodyne. In both games, New Zealand were five down for fewer than 200, yet England could not sustain the pressure, and grew fixated on the refusal of the ball to deviate from the straight and narrow. Sam Curran, preferred for the First Test to Chris Woakes (who returned for the Second in place of spinner Jack Leach, with some success), was the leading wicket-taker. Yet his modest tally of six included two lbws which would have been overturned on review.

Rory Burns built on a good Ashes with scores of 52, 31 and 101, while Denly exemplified the new quest for solidity, twice hanging around at Mount Maunganui. But debutant opener Dom Sibley had technical issues, both outside off stump and against spin, while Zak Crawley - drafted in for the Second Test after Jos Buttler hurt his back - lasted only six balls. The sense that not everyone was treating the tour with the utmost urgency was compounded by another unintended consequence of Buttler's injury: with Jonny Bairstow dropped (and Ben Foakes ignored altogether), the gloves passed to Ollie Pope, the 21-year-old Surrey batsman who had kept wicket in only five first-class games, and was trying to re-establish himself as a Test No. 6. He batted well (from No. 7) to make 75 at Seddon Park, and kept tidily enough, until he dropped Kane Williamson on the last morning. And while Pope had been nominated in advance as the reserve keeper, England hadn't in reality expected to use him.

New Zealand - who boasted five centuries in the Tests to England's two - looked what they were: second in the rankings. This was their 11th series win at home in the last 13. After Watling's marathon, six of their top seven could claim a Test average of at least 40 (England had only Root), while Tim Southee's expert use of the width of the crease was an object lesson in how to tackle grudging surfaces. Neil Wagner, the left-arm seamer with the stamina of a Duracell bunny, once more circumvented conditions by banging it in short, and was rewarded with a pair of five-fors and 13 wickets, six more than his nearest rival. England lacked anyone with either his engine or imagination. It symbolised New Zealand's quiet control of the Tests that, when a deluge cut short the last day in Hamilton, Williamson and Ross Taylor both had unbeaten centuries. Their partnership of 213 left England with a haul of 21 wickets at 58 apiece, their worst in a series of more than one Test.

The pitches, it's true, were not designed for thrill-a-minute cricket. Hosting its first Test, Bay Oval was so flat it left Root with little option but to become only the second captain to bat first in New Zealand since January 2011 (South Africa's Faf du Plessis did so twice). But the hosts' innings win, completed in the final session, meant England could hardly grumble about conditions. The surface at Seddon Park, though, was a shocker: slow and lifeless, it sucked the joy out of batsmen, bowlers and spectators. The downpour put everyone out of their misery.

The 20-over matches - both teams were eyeing up the Twenty20 World Cup in Australia in October - had given Silverwood and Eoin Morgan a chance to look at fringe players and fresh blood, while the likes of Root, Buttler, Stokes, Ali and Jason Roy were rested. Dawid Malan produced the knock of the series, a 51-ball 103 not out at Napier, but earned a rebuke from Morgan after declining to risk a bye from the last delivery of the innings. James Vince faded after starring in the first game, at Christchurch's Hagley Oval and, when England needed two batsmen for the super over at Auckland, they turned without hesitation to Morgan and Bairstow. Next in would have been Chris Jordan, who had earned the tie by hitting Jimmy Neesham's last three balls for 12, and who then bowled the super over, confirming his role as leader of an otherwise young attack.

Others flickered. Somerset opener Tom Banton played strokes of genuine pedigree; Lancashire leg-spinner Matt Parkinson tossed the ball up; Worcestershire seamer Pat Brown rummaged around his box of tricks; the Curran brothers, Tom and Sam, formed a probing new-ball attack. But Sam Billings, generously awarded the vice-captaincy - in part because it had been decided he would keep wicket in every game - made little impact, and first-time tourists Lewis Gregory and Saqib Mahmood were peripheral. In that respect, they embodied the tour as a whole, with Root taking the chance to explain away another overseas defeat as a valuable opportunity to learn. It was true that the newness of his partnership with Silverwood bought him time as England embarked on yet another attempt to reinvent their Test cricket. But with only three Test tours between this and the Ashes - which loomed like an obsession over the dressing-room - time was running out.

© John Wisden & Co