A vastly more efficient display of fielding and wicketkeeping, coupled with a demonstration by Ben Stokes of his allround prowess in his second game back, enabled England to win by six wickets and level their five-match one-day series against New Zealand at 1-1.
Four run-outs equalled England’s record in a one-day international which they had achieved three times before. Two were the work of Stokes, who also took two wickets with the ball then hit an unbeaten 63 off 74 balls to lead England home and take the man of the match award as if he had never been away.
But Stokes was not alone in raising his game after England’s opening three-wicket defeat in Hamilton. David Willey and Jonny Bairstow each claimed one run-out as England reacted to their sloppiness in the first international by collectively squeezing New Zealand dry, so England’s target was no more than 224 on a fast-scoring pitch and ground.
It was the fruit of hard fielding practice the day before this game. England’s fielding coach Paul Collingwood had put the players through their paces in the middle of this very open ground, the opposite of the high-sided modern stadium, getting them accustomed to the strong cross-wind, and they made only one notable error - when Jason Roy, having taken two sharp catches, fumbled a relatively easy run-out chance that would have reduced New Zealand to 181 for nine.
Of the four run-outs, the most valuable run-out was the one by Willey to dismiss Ross Taylor, New Zealand’s most senior batsman and century-maker in the first ODI. Willey fumbled when diving to his right at backward point but, ever a live wire, recovered to beat Taylor after he was sent back. With the hosts’ captain Kane Williamson missing the game, and Taylor gone, and Martin Guptill well caught by Roy running to his right and diving at deep midwicket, New Zealand had no experienced batsman to pace their innings.
The most spectacular run-out was the first of Stokes’s brace. Not often is there a manifestation of his full strength, but there was here after he had only half-stopped a shot to him at mid-on and the ball bobbled two or three yards away. The batsman, Mitchell Santner, made it to the non-striker’s end alright but not his partner, New Zealand’s acting captain Tim Southee: after a tigerish leap Stokes could not have unleashed a faster, flatter throw to the keeper.
Such fielding went a long way to camouflaging England’s main current deficiency when they bowl: the lack of penetration. When they won their last ODI series in Australia they had Mark Wood’s pace and Liam Plunkett’s bounce. Now Stokes is cranking up his pace as he returns from his five-month England absence but for their 2019 World Cup team England still have a vacancy for a pace bowler who can take wickets in mid-innings when batsmen are set.
Bringing Adil Rashid on for only the 11th over was Eoin Morgan’s way of camouflaging his lack of penetrative pace, before the fielding made its impact, and England’s spinners did their job by bowling their 20 overs for 65 runs, conceding only five boundaries between them. Given the strong cross-breeze Moeen Ali was able to drift the ball away from righthanders, though he could not turn the ball back into them, and he bowled wider of the stumps than in Hamilton where Taylor had picked off anything straight.
Even so England could not bowl New Zealand out until the 50th over. Mitchell Santner followed his big hitting in Hamilton - an unbeaten 45 off 27 balls - with sensible batting that nursed the tail from 147 for eight to something vaguely respectable. Tom Curran is mature far beyond his years - 23 later this week - when it comes to bowling variations at the end of an innings, but the same lack of a threatening stock ball which has marked his Test career has resulted in his taking one wicket for 118 in these two ODIs so far. But until Wood recovers from his left ankle niggle, Craig Overton is England’s only alternative pace bowler.
England’s main deficiency in batting at the moment is cameoitis: the overwhelming desire to play one’s natural fearless game. In consequence, in the last six ODIs, in pretty friendly conditions except for Adelaide, only one England batsman has reached 80 - Jos Buttler when he made his century in Sydney. But Stokes was in no mood to give his wicket away after Roy had pulled to square-leg, Joe Root had flicked to midwicket - the catch of the day by Colin de Grandhomme, and Bairstow had ramped to third man.
Stokes’s pulling was the feature of his innings - and being so quickly in position he was pulling through wide mid-on, not square of the wicket. But his straight six from down the pitch off Trent Boult was not bad either. While his captain Eoin Morgan scored at almost a run a ball in their stand of 88, before chipping a return catch, Stokes picked up from where he had left off against West Indies last September, so that England won with 73 balls to spare.