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Cricket news - England's long road and learning from mistakes
Learning quickly is what this England team need to do. No matter that there is a new coach, no matter that the team have been espousing a new style of play, such has been the inconsistency of their Test cricket over the best part of six years that development is required and it is required soonest. The partnership between Joe Root and Ollie Pope which pushed England above 450 on day four at Seddon Park, was certainly a step in the right direction. Could this be a turning point for England's overseas play?
It's far too early to tell on that one. One innings does not make a winter of course. And England's ability to follow up the very good with the very poor has been a hallmark of their Test cricket. Any temptation to draw grandiose conclusions from one day, no matter how encouraging, should be avoided until there has been sustained improvement. But in the 193 run stand between Pope and Root, England at least showed they had learnt their lessons from the first Test at Bay Oval. It bodes well for the future if they can continue such development.
At the start of day four here, England were in a similar position to the start of the second day in Mount Maunganui. There, they were 241-4 and looking to build a sizeable first innings score. Instead, they lost four for 54 in a blaze of wafts and aggression which handed the initiative to New Zealand on a featherbed pitch, making 350 when 500 was a minimum requirement. Here in Hamilton, they started the day 269-5, 106 runs behind and looking to build a total, as they were at Bay Oval, to put the home side under pressure.
If England had lost early wickets, as they did in the previous game, the fine work of Root and Rory Burns of the previous day would have been undone. The chance to put New Zealand under pressure and level the series would have been gone. The chronic inability to make sizeable first innings scores would have continued to hang round them like a bad smell. After all, before this game, England last scored more than 400 in the first innings during the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne in December 2017. There was plenty riding on the opening session.
And unlike in game one, England didn't lose early wickets. Pope and Root saw off New Zealand's early burst watchfully and purposefully. Naturally, there were a few alarms as both players got going. Early on, Root was lucky not to be castled by a ball from Tim Southee which stayed incredibly low. Ollie Pope was beaten outside off-stump a couple of times in the morning session too. But generally, there was plenty of quiet accumulation and little of the trigger happy expansiveness that was England's downfall on the second day in Mount Maunganui.
As if to emphasise the change of approach, Pope played with pleasing restraint during the first two and a half hour session. He scored just eight runs from his first 49 deliveries of the day. New Zealand bowled well at him, cutting down his scoring opportunities, and there was some obvious frustration at not being able to rotate the strike more. A number of exquisite cover drives found fielders to compound that frustration. But Pope found a way through with a satisfying display of grit after two loose dismissals in the first Test. He brought up his maiden half-century after lunch. It won't be his last.
"He played extremely well," said Root. "You look at the way Ollie plays for Surrey. He's very free-flowing, scores quickly and likes to put pressure on bowlers. He realised it was a slow pitch, and showed a lot of maturity. He knew it was a crucial partnership and we needed to make sure we set the game up and built up to a position where we could dictate terms. I thought he read the situation really well, and I'm really pleased for him to make a good contribution."
All the while, Pope was getting a masterclass at the other end from his captain. For a 21 year-old, just starting out in the game, there can be no better lesson than the one Root gave him as he reached his third double century and his highest Test score since his first innings as captain when he made 190 against South Africa at Lord's. More fluent that the previous day, Root was the aggressor, guiding the ball down to third man often and pulling anything slightly short into the leg-side. Even he found things tough going though on a horribly slow surface which made run scoring difficult.
After eight months without a hundred, this has been a fine return to form. "It's been different challenges this year," Root said. "It's been unique in everything we've had to go through as a team across the formats. Mentally, to be able to finish the year strong has been nice. I've felt like my game has been pretty much there. You just sometimes need a bit behind you, and a few extra runs. It's the business we're in, unfortunately. Sometimes you can be playing as well as you want but you need the scores."
The 441 balls that Root faced before he was dismissed was the most he has ever faced in a Test innings. Pope handled more than 200 deliveries. This was England occupying the crease, batting time and batting big. True, the pitch was docile, although there were signs of increased variable bounce, so staying in was less of a burden than it otherwise might have been. But in the lack of pace and bounce in the surface, run scoring was also difficult. And rather than try and force a pace that might have led to their downfall, England ground out runs in a manner that suggested they had learnt from what happened in Mount Maunganui.
That is what there has been too little of from England on their recent overseas tours. The defeat at Bay Oval contained a bingo card of all the disappointments which have dogged England away from home. Players spoke of learning about batting long and being inventive with the ball as if they haven't been lessons handed out by opposition teams during the three previous winters. Shouldn't they have sunk in already?
But this England team is young and inexperienced so expectations in terms of results should perhaps be tempered. Instead, as long as there is improvement and development, that is probably enough for now. Today, led by their captain, there were signs England are learning. The challenge now is to keep doing so.
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