The concept of a nervous run chase appears lost on this England side and they now march into the final day of this third Test against New Zealand needing 113 more runs to start life under Ben Stokes with a first home series clean-sweep in 11 years.
Set 296 for victory after Jack Leach completed well-earned match figures of 10 for 166 on the fourth afternoon, England scorched their way to 183 for two from just 39 overs of batting bliss. Ollie Pope finessed his way to an unbeaten 81 and Joe Root a typically frictionless 55 not out that included another audacious reverse scoop for six.
Root had just 16 runs to his name when he repeated his antics from Trent Bridge and whipped Neil Wagner over the slips like a matador bamboozling a charging bull. He and Pope had come together with the score on 51 for two but showed the confidence coursing through this side at present with a silken and unbeaten 132-run stand.
With Jonny Bairstow still to come and fresh from back-to-back centuries, the pitch offering only the occasional gremlin and Kane Williamson burning two of his reviews following successive gambles agains Root, the tourists need the overnight break to prove rejuvenating and the return of Headingley’s penchant for a twist or two. Tickets for the fifth day are free, even if the action could well be swift.
Truly, the only source of angst for England came early on and Zak Crawley the source. Skittish at the crease and dropped by Tim Southee at slip before getting off the mark, the right-hander’s early travails can only have contributed to Alex Lees being run out for nine when his partner drove him to extra cover and their communication went awry.
In fairness, this was also a majestic piece of fielding from New Zealand, Williamson picking up the ball after his initial fumble and, on the run, spinning sideways like an All Black scrum-half to the alert Trent Boult at the stumps. Williamson’s fly-half made no mistake and the early roar from the crowd dipped with England 17 for one.
Crawley responded with some typically eye-catching strokeplay en route to 25 but the headache over his place in the side will roll into selection for Friday’s rescheduled fifth Test against India after another tame demise.
This time it was to a spinner of little repute, Crawley trying to drive Michael Bracewell through cover only to chip to Williamson at extra; Stokes, so desperate to back his players, has a decision here.
Pope, by contrast, is set for an extended spell, following his 145 in Nottingham with another fluent innings that saw him peel off 12 fours and work the ball all around the park. Is he a genuine No3? In the upturned world of Stokes and Brendon McCullum apparently so, and his deployment of him has allowed Root to return to his favored spot; like much of what the pair touches, it appears to be working.
The day had begun with drama when the news came through that Ben Foakes – absent on day three with a stiff back – was out for the remainder of the match after testing positive for Covid. In came Sam Billings as his official replacement – able to both keep wicket and bat if required under the ICC regulations – following a late-night drive up from Kent that saw him arrive at the team hotel at 2am.
Having traveled 500 miles down the east coast of Australia to make his Test debut at the end of the Ashes in January, Billings was at least used to such a scenario and met it with his typical enthusiasm. It was needed too, with a wicketless morning session and a fourth century partnership of the series for Daryl Mitchell and Tom Blundell that tested England’s collective patience and wasn’t broken until 45 minutes after lunch.
Matt Potts was the golden arm for Stokes here, hustling in from the Kirkstall Lane end and trapping Mitchell lbw for 56 with a ball that moved into the right-hander. It was the latest example of temperament suited to Test cricket, Potts having shaken off the disappointment of Blundell overturning an lbw four balls earlier and finally ended a golden series of 538 runs at an average of 107.6 for the ubiquitous Mitchell.
Blundell, unbeaten on 53 at this juncture with New Zealand six down and 243 ahead, had been a similar thorn in England’s side and ended his tour unbeaten on 88 and boasting 383 runs at 76.6. Potts was given some tap by the nuggety wicketkeeper, including an eye-catching running scoop for four, but at the other end Leach spun himself to a second five-wicket haul of the match to keep the target under 300.
Only the stone-hearted could begrudge Leach becoming just the second spinner after Graeme Swann in 2013 to take 10 in a Headingley Test in the past 50 years, given a career of lurching fortunes to date. But it was the manner in which he got there which augurs so well for England, Leach clearly buoyant under the captaincy of Stokes, bowling wider of the crease and finding the drift which was absent last week.
The wicket of Bracewell may have been a case of misadventure from the No8 as he holed out on nine but the arm-ball that bowled Southee was a classical finger spinner’s dismissal. Wagner lasted five balls, edging behind to Billings as the emergency wicketkeeper somehow trapped it between his thighs.
When Boult was bowled attempting to wipe across the line, tea was called and it was soon over to England’s entertainers for one last dance in this memorable series.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism