For coach Brendon McCullum and captain Ben Stokes, a seventh win in succession – England’s best run since 2004 – would be yet more evidence that their aggressive style that is attempting to change Test cricket is working.
Not everything is working perfectly, evidenced by their 162.3-over slog in the field after Stokes had enforced the follow-on on day three. The struggles of Zak Crawley, the only wicket to fall in the first 11 overs of the chase on the fourth evening, suggests there may also be a change at the top of the order by the summer.
Crawley’s 30-ball innings was ended when he was bowled by Tim Southee, New Zealand’s captain penetrating a huge gap between bat and pad to end the Kent batter’s innings on 24.
But having reached stumps on 48 for one, with Ollie Robinson rather than Nighthawk Stuart Broad joining Ben Duckett at the crease, England have a first Test series win in New Zealand since 2008 well within their grasp on the final day.
There have only been three previous occasions in Test history when a team has lost having enforced the follow-on. They were all Australia – twice against England, in 1894 and the famous Headingley Test of 1981, and the all-time classic against India at Eden Gardens in 2001 when they were taken down by VVS Laxman’s 281.
Despite seeing New Zealand pile up 483 in their second innings, the decision by Stokes to enforce now looks as though it will be ultimately vindicated.
England were forced to endure a gruelling two days in the field before they were set a target that now seems within easy reach.
For long parts of this fourth day, things looked pretty bleak for Stokes’ men, none more so than during a 158-run stand spanning 44.2 overs between Kane Williamson and Tom Blundell.
The sixth-wicket pair looked to have moved New Zealand into the ascendency, as they extended their team’s lead to 229.
Having enforced the follow-on with a 226-run lead of their own, this was not the direction either England or Stokes had envisaged this Test travelling in.
Yet an act of desperation proved to be a moment of inspiration as Harry Brook finally made the long-awaited breakthrough, removing a previously becalmed Williamson for 132 with his occasional medium pace. Thrown the ball 28 minutes after tea, Brook’s dismissal thanks to another act of desperation – a review for caught behind that looked optimistic at best – changed the course of this day.
The 24-year-old has made a blistering start to his Test career, including an imperious first-innings 186 here, so much so that his statistics so far have seen him compared to Australian great Don Bradman. But it’s fair to say he is not best known for his bowling other than perhaps for bowling Joe Root as a 14-year-old when he was asked to bowl in the England nets before a Test at Headingley.
In 61 previous first-class Tests, Brook had taken eight wickets at 55.25. Indeed, he had only ever before bowled 135 overs.
Yet he bowled eight here, taking one for 25, to hand some relief to the exhausted trio of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ollie Robinson, who bowled a combined 79 overs in the innings.
Brook’s spell spooked New Zealand, so much so that Williamson’s dismissal sparked a collapse in which they lost their final five wickets for 28 runs. Blundell, the final man to fall on 90, was forced to try and accelerate towards his century as he lost partners in quick succession, with the run out of Michael Bracewell perhaps the hardest to take. In the end, Blundell fell short as he edged Jack Leach to first slip, the left-arm spinner’s 61.3 overs eventually rewarded with a haul of five for 157.
Despite the pain of spending so long in the field, it set up a winning position for the tourists, with all six of their previous chases since McCullum and Stokes came together at the start of last summer ending in victory.
Another now looks certain on the final day of this match.