“By the barest of margins, by the barest of all margins.” We all remember those words, etched in history, that Ian Smith delivered in 2019 after Joss Buttler whipped off the bails to win England the World Cup at New Zealand’s expense.
Four years on, though Smith wasn’t there to deliver those words, they would have been most appropriate. Rather fittingly, it was once more New Zealand and England battling it out. Rather fittingly, it was New Zealand prevailing on this occasion. After the heartbreak of 2019, you felt that cricket owed them one.
The only thing that put in a bigger shift than the never tiring Neill Wagner was the pendulum on which the game hung. Over five gripping days, it swung to, fro, to again, and then another few times just for good measure. Then just as you felt that it had swung its last, it swung again, as the aforementioned Wagner rolled the dice for a final time with his trusted short ball.
It accounted for Stokes, it brought an end to Root just five short of his century, and it changed the course of the game. Indeed, it may have changed the course of Wagner’s career. After suffering the brunt of Harry Brook for large parts of the series, it seemed as if this might be the final chapter in his international career. But his lion’s heart roared once more and he defied narrative as he so often has done to produce one of the great climaxes to a Test match.
It culminated in him dismissing a distraught Jimmy Anderson, shortly after being hit for four by the same man. Those two moments were a microcosm of the entire match. Just as one team put a significant dent in the other, the opponent came roaring back one more time.
You could pick out any number of moments to be the lasting image of this game, But a crestfallen Anderson, after being caught strangled down the leg side with only two to win by a jubilant Tom Blundell, mustering a smile at the spectacle he’d just been a part of, is surely a prime contender. It’s not the first time this cruel fate has befallen Anderson, a fate so many number 11s before him have suffered, but this one was different.
England have maintained the consistent message that they’re here to put on a show first and foremost. It goes without saying that they were disappointed in defeat, but that wasn’t the overwhelming feeling when the players walked off, embracing and changing pleasantries with their counterparts with whom they’d just shared an incredible moment in time.
As cliche as it is, cricket was the real winner, and Anderson’s begrudging acceptance of that was confirmation of as much, as if we needed it after what we’d just seen. Only something as seismic as this could have brought a smile to the face of a man normally so determined not to show a flicker of positivity.
Conversation will ensue about whether the ball before the final wicket should have been called a wide. Debate will be had over it, but let’s face it, New Zealand deserved a slice of luck after what has happened in the past.
Analysis will be conducted on whether or not England should have enforced the follow on, aided by a significant dose of hind sight it must be said. In the cold light of day, there may be room for nuanced criticism and for more thorough dissection of England’s decisions. For now though, let’s appreciate what we’ve been witness to.
Brendan McCullum had the widest smile across his face. His wish for providing entertainment above anything else had been satisfied and then some. Maybe he, Stokes and the rest of the players are hurting more than they’re willing to give away in order to maintain the brand, but does it really matter? This England side have disturbed convention over the past eight months and they have done so once more.
The England players bought into it, the New Zealand players rose to it and they entertained us like few before them have done and They will continue to do so for a long time to come.