England’s continued failure to take advantage of such a good player as Foakes – and a player with a good record in the limited international opportunities he has enjoyed – is puzzling. Equally, it might be worth reflecting if their use of Pope – asked to bat out of position during his first spell in the team and asked to keep in his second – is really giving him the best chance to flourish. It might be best not to take too many risk with such a talent.
It was poor reward for Ben Stokes’ efforts, too. Stokes, who has been suffering from knee pain during this game, delivered a sustained spell of something approaching leg theory with six men on the leg side and a third man on the boundary almost behind the keeper. To have expended such effort and generated such lift from a docile surface was an admirable achievement. It deserved better reward.
The same might be said for the Denly drop. On that occasion, Archer had produced an outrageous piece of skill to deceive Williamson. Archer changed his grip even as he gathered to deliver and, instead of bowling a conventional seamer, delivered a knuckleball. He also didn’t use his front arm in delivery.
To have the skill to do that, to produce an error from Williamson on such an unresponsive surface, and to see such a chance go down must have been galling. And it does have to be taken into account when reflecting on his figures for the series – he finished with two wickets at a cost of 104.50 apiece and a strike rate of 246 – as a whole. Yes, the England bowlers struggled. But their fielders hardly gave them the best opportunity to succeed.
It would be wrong to blame a last-day lack of concentration, too. While that might have been relevant, it has been a problem that has afflicted England throughout the tour. Tom Latham, the first-innings centurion, was dropped by Stokes on 66 – again off Archer – while in Mount Maunganui, Watling was dropped, again by Stokes, at slip when he had 31. He went on to score 205.
Let’s be clear: the best side won this series and, even if both those Williamson chances had been taken on the final day in Hamilton, it was too late to force a win. It rained from around 2pm. But the point remains: for an attack that struggles as much as this to create chances in such conditions, it becomes even more important that the standard of catching improves.
“It’s frustrating for the bowlers,” Root admitted afterwards. “They worked very hard to take chances on a very flat wicket. It’s very frustrating.
“Catching is something you want to pride yourself on as a team and we want to get better at. We work very hard in practice and know that in other circumstances those drops could potentially cost us a chance of a winning a game or even losing it. I’m sure Joe won’t hear the end of that one for a while.
“It just proves that when you do get your chances, you’ve got to be right on it and you’ve got to take them because good batting sides will make you pay if you don’t.”
Joe Root and Ben Stokes contemplate their options Getty Images
The good news, from an England perspective, was the encouraging update provided by Root over Stokes’ knee. But it did seem odd that Stokes, with the injury cloud hanging over him, bowled more overs than anyone bar Sam Curran in New Zealand’s second innings and long after any hope of winning the game had disappeared.
“Hopefully it’s not a long-term thing and it’s something that calms down very quickly,” Root said. “It can depend on if the strapping is not quite right.
“With Ben, you’re always trying to make sure he’s being honest with you. He’ll continue to keep bowling unless you pull him off. He’ll do absolutely everything for his team-mates so that sets a great example for the rest of the guys. At the same time, you don’t want him to hurt himself.”
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Maybe there was good news on Archer, too. He has, very clearly, not enjoyed a successful tour. But the figures do not tell the whole story. As well as arriving in New Zealand with very little experience of a red Kookaburra ball or these conditions, he also arrived with some unrealistic expectations as baggage. There were times he really struggled.
Increasingly, though, he bowled with skill, intelligence and stamina. To see him on the final day – going wide on the crease, changing his action and bowling knuckleballs, cutters and, of course, that wicked bouncer – was to see a young man who had soaked up these learning experiences and put them to good use. He didn’t win much reward, it is true, but if these trials come to have value in India or Australia, well, perhaps it was time well spent.
Either way, if England’s bowlers are to enjoy success in either nation, they will require far more consistent support from their fielders.