James Bracey’s hands could not have been tighter, gripping his bat like a man caught in a shootout and handed a gun for the first time.
A day earlier, he chased a wide delivery for his second Test duck in as many innings. A few hours earlier, after a succession of fumbles, he dropped a simple chance to dismiss Tom Blundell three balls and no runs into an innings that swelled to 34 off 77. By the time Blundell was done, the Blackcaps were 58 ahead with one wicket remaining, instead of 11 behind with five to go.
Of course, it wasn’t all Bracey’s fault. It never is one person’s, least of all a Test newbie. But as those hands tightened around that black bat handle and his third ball skewed into the leg side, a scamper – scored by a sarcastic pop from the Hollies Stand – got him his first Test run. For a brief moment, there was relief.
Alas, this is not the origin story of a Hollywood, come-from-behind innings. Very few of those end with gloving a ball onto your stumps for eight. He arrived at 58 for five in England’s second innings and left as the next man out for 71. New Zealand, eventually 388 all out, had taken an 85-run head start into this portion of the Test. A lead that remained intact even when home skipper Joe Root edged Ajaz Patel behind. At 76 for seven, the last of the designated batters had gone, not that you could have recognised them as such.
It is hard to remember a worse display from an England batting side. All at fault to a man. The brief was straight forward: essentially, to see out the day on a pitch they knew carried few tricks to surprise them. Instead, Rory Burns wafted at the second delivery. Nought for one. Dom Sibley hung back and held his bat out. 17 for two. Zak Crawley was trapped in front and reviewed to give us a second look at his error in committing too early. 30 for three. Ollie Pope misjudged an inswinger after the most Ollie Pope 23 off 20. 58 for four. Dan Lawrence, defiant on Friday with 81 not out , tamely offered an edge on Saturday for a duck. 58 for five. Bracey, well, yeah. 71 for six. And, of course, Root. 76 for seven.
The bowlers picked up the slack. Barely a couple of hours from their 120-over stint, it was on them again. Mark Wood and Olly Stone, those quicks the ECB management will talk to you all day about preserving, went out there and took England into a lead, after 25 and 24 overs respectively.
They managed 44 between them, a stand that will finish as the highest partnership of the innings. By close, with Stone and James Anderson still there, the hosts were left on 122 for nine and a frail lead of 37. A first series defeat since Sri Lanka in 2014, and a first New Zealand win over here since 1999 awaits.
It is in keeping with the lot of those with the ball that it fell on them to take this match to the fourth day. When Stuart Broad had finished New Zealand’s innings, trapping Patel in front to end an annoying 27-run partnership, he walked off with a well-earned four for 48 from his 23.1 overs but still with a sense he and the rest of the quicks had been let down.
He should have dismissed Ross Taylor on 68 when a top edge flew high and dropped through the hands of substitute fielder Sam Billings at fine leg. Taylor would eventually fall for 80, his 54th score above fifty, as Stone’s first Test dismissal at his home ground. But the joy was short-lived when, at the end of the same over, Bracey shelled Blundell.
There was a point today when you could have argued that New Zealand had let England get off the hook. The loss of Will Young to the final delivery of Friday meant they arrived on day three on 229 for three. Not only did they make it to 292 without further loss, they were also 335 for five before losing those last five for just 53.
Yet the standards of the No 2 Test side in the world, one due to contest the World Test Championship against India next week, are high for a reason. And even amid their mistakes, it was clear to see a sense of calm, which almost reeks of over-politeness towards the game’s fundamentals. At times, it can feel quite annoying: How are you, that little country over there, so good at this? Especially to an England side who have tried to outthink a format and, more often than not, been made to look silly. Not least with the decision not to pick Jack Leach in the XI given Patel’s effectiveness in his spurts.
Arguably Bracey is the most Galaxy brain of the selections. The desperation to get him a cap ahead of an Ashes tour where he was already being pencilled in as a top-order alternate has come awry. His selection as wicketkeeper for this series, when he wasn’t even the best wicketkeeper in the squad, looks to have done him more harm than good.
He does it for Gloucestershire, of course, and is more than capable at first-class level. But the role, along with batting at number seven, is something he was never going to adopt in the Test side even if he had put in a passable Adam Gilchrist impression over the last week. Trying to play it smart has come at a very real cost to Bracey.
This brings us on to the rest. The temptation will be to say without Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, this line-up was always against it. Even with New Zealand making six changes to their XI, considering two of those, Matt Henry - who accounted for all of the top three for 36 so far - and Trent Boult - with only Broad’s wicket to his name, remarkably - could walk into most, if not all, Test attacks.
Even if Stokes and Buttler were available, the top seven would have featured five of the top seven here today. No doubt those two have a quality of clout that emboldens those around them. But those here and now had the chance to take responsibility and spurned it. Sure, they are young. Yes, this is “Test cricket”. But these are England’s Test best: the ones given the most opportunities to succeed at this level over the last 18 months.
One of the deserved criticisms around England’s build-up over the last month - heck, since the start of the year - is how focussed they have been on Australia later this year. Well, after witnessing day like this, they can probably forget about that, too.