WELLINGTON — Sometimes sporting contests are so extraordinary that the actual result almost seems like an irrelevance. This remarkable, undulating and thrilling final Test between New Zealand and England was one such occasion.
When this series is remembered in years to come it will not be for the fact it ultimately ended 1-1 or that England became only the fourth team in Test history to lose after enforcing the follow-on.
It will be for the heart-stopping drama that unfolded here at the Basin Reserve in one of the greatest finishes to a Test match ever seen as a dogged New Zealand somehow denied England a seventh successive victory by pulling off a barely-believable one-run win.
Only once before in 2,493 Test matches spanning 145 years has a team ever been defeated by such a narrow margin in terms of runs – when the West Indies also beat Australia by one run in Adelaide in 1993.
This was also only the second defeat for England in 12 Tests since Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes came together as captain and coach at the start of last summer. Yet given their stated mission is to revive the popularity of Test cricket, setting up a match like this in front of a packed-out Wellington crowd who all gained free entry feels like a win in terms of the bigger picture.
Indeed, rather than disappointment that England were unable to pull off a seventh successive victory or complete a perfect winter, winning every Test for the first time since 1899, there was just elation both these teams had produced such a dramatic game.
Matches like this don’t happen very often. England’s Ashes wins at Edgbaston in 2005 and Headingley in 2019, which they won by two runs and one wicket respectively, come to mind. Then there was the tied 2019 World Cup final against New Zealand at Lord’s, the greatest one-day international of all-time that ended with England winning on a boundary countback.
Yet such has been the relentless excellence of this team, there was no inkling we would be served up an all-time classic when they were set 258 to win late on day four.
New Zealand, led by Kane Williamson’s superb second-innings century, ensured we would have a contest after scoring 483 in their second innings following on.
But arriving on the final morning needing another 210 to win and with nine wickets in hand, England were strong favourites to complete a seventh successful chase of the Bazball era.
Things started to go wrong during a morning session in which they slipped to 80 for five after they lost four for 27.
Yet a 121-run stand between Stokes and Joe Root took their team to within 57 of victory. Stokes lives for these moments. So often as captain he has thrown his wicket away looking to make a point about leading the way in this aggressive new era for his team.
But with a target to chase and a first series win in New Zealand for 15 years on the line, he was looking to ensure he was there at the end – just as he was in 2019 at Lord’s and Headingley and in Melbourne last November when his unbeaten 52 led England to glory in the T20 World Cup final against Pakistan.
This time he was unable to do the same, falling for 33 when he was caught hacking a Neil Wagner short ball shortly after lunch.
With Root looking in such fine touch, England were still favourites. But Root, who hit an unbeaten first-innings 153, fell for 95 trying to hit Wagner over the infield. England still needed 56 to win with Ben Foakes joined by Stuart Broad.
Broad made 11 before he fell hitting out to Matt Henry. At 215 for eight, and 43 still needed, Foakes looked to be his side’s final hope.
He almost got them over the line, too, but with just seven needed, he pulled New Zealand captain Tim Southee to deep fine leg and England’s destiny was in the hands of Jack Leach and James Anderson, who said last week he had no interest in hitting the winning runs in a Test, adding: “I don’t like batting.”
Anderson certainly looked like he did when he crunched Wagner through midwicket for four to leave England needing two to win.
Leach, whose 31 balls were more than the 17 he faced in that famous Headingley Test partnering Stokes, played out a maiden to Southee.
But another dramatic win was snatched from England’s grasp when Anderson gloved behind the second ball of the next over from Wagner to spark wild celebrations among the New Zealanders.
Wagner was key to this dramatic result, with his spell of three for 38 from 9.2 overs proving the difference.
But had his first delivery of that final over been called a wide as it might have been, this would have been only the third tied Test in history. Instead, New Zealand extended their unbeaten home run in Test series to 11.
England might be criticised for throwing away wickets by taking the aggressive option. But this is the attacking style that has brought them so much success of late.
They can’t win every game but such is the power of Bazball, even in defeat they are sensational.
Next up it’s the Ashes this summer. If it’s half as good as this, it will be compelling viewing.