It is a mark of the current strength of New Zealand’s Test squad that they left out Tom Blundell for this match and replaced him with the uncapped Devon Conway. Blundell has done well at the top of the order but Conway is the coming man of New Zealand cricket. By the end of the day, he had shown why with a superb debut hundred that had given his side the upper hand. New Zealand changed an already excellent team and made it stronger. There are not too many Test match sides who have the strength in depth to do that.
It is little wonder, then, that the first day of the English Test match summer went to form. New Zealand, the second ranked side in the world, displayed the sort of ruthless, no-nonsense cricket that sealed their place in the World Test Championship final, to be held in a couple of weeks’ time. England, without a number of first choice players and at a different stage of their development, battled hard but were ultimately unable to force the pace against the proven class of their opponents.
Admittedly, New Zealand won an important toss. Getting first use of a good pitch, their batsmen made sure to take advantage with a display of determination and solidity that gradually wound England down. It is what New Zealand do. Their batting is not the most exciting to watch. They do not generally race along at three and a half runs an over. They bat time and they bat big. It has been one of the hallmarks of their eleven Test series wins in their last 14 rubbers. Today was no different.
Conway played some sparkling strokes, not least the one legged flick off his legs to get to his hundred, but in between times he was as solid as granite. Only for a short spell before lunch when, Mark Wood hit him twice with 94mph short balls, did Conway look discomfited. Tom Latham was his usual reassuringly calm presence against the new ball while Henry Nicholls, who put on an unbeaten 132 with Conway for the fourth wicket, might not win any prizes for entertainment value but his effectiveness is second to none.
When Nicholls arrived at the crease, New Zealand were 114 for 3 and England had their chance. But the pair of left-handers, Nicholls born in Christchurch and Conway in Johannesburg, snuffed out any thoughts of a home side surge. It was the sort of partnership that good teams build at the important moments in games. It also showed England’s young batsmen the ruthlessness they need to display when they get their turn to bat on this pitch.
England didn’t bowl poorly by any means although they flagged a little in the final session, leaking runs with the second new ball. It is a pitch that calls for discipline and generally England’s bowlers were able to provide it. In the middle session, New Zealand mustered just 59 runs for the loss of one wicket but such was the quality of England’s bowling, particularly from Stuart Broad, that the home side could have had more to show for their efforts. It was two hours of high-class Test cricket from both teams.
Ollie Robinson, one of two England debutants, looked the part, picking up Tom Latham and Ross Taylor either side of lunch. Latham’s wicket was a particularly handy piece of bowling. The ball before Robinson got his man, the left-hander was beaten on the outside edge. Next delivery, the wicket ball, came back to take the inside edge and cannon into the stumps. It was the sort of set-up that Robinson has become known for on the county circuit.
The rest of England’s bowlers tried manfully but without much luck. Anderson bowled Kane Williamson, again off the inside edge, just after lunch but Broad and Mark Wood ended up wicketless. Wood bowled with real pace, consistently clocking up speeds in the mid-90s during his first spell but didn’t actually create that many chances. The one he did, a Conway top edge in the final session, just flew out of James Bracey’s grasp behind the stumps. Wood’s current bowling average in England is an eye watering 46.95.
Perhaps England could have been more aggressive in the opening session. Wood bowled the first bouncer in the 17th over of the day as Anderson, Broad and Robinson pitched it up in search of movement. It is hard to argue with that tactic. It is what all three of those bowlers are good at and Anderson and Broad have been criticised in the past for bowling too short with the new ball. Better to search for movement than not. It was a sound enough plan.
Might a frontline spinner have helped? England decided against playing Jack Leach, opting instead for an all-out seam attack with Joe Root’s part-time off-spin the variation. There was certainly some justification for the decision. Early season at Lord’s is usually a time when fast-bowlers thrive and Middlesex’s County Championship games here so far this summer have followed that pattern, with the likes of Tim Murtagh and Ethan Bamber making hay.
This pitch, however, offered little in the way of movement for England’s fast-bowlers throughout the first day. Indeed, Root bowled 12 overs himself, finding some purchase and spinning one sharply past Nicholls midway through the final session. With the weather forecast set fair for most of the match, Leach, England’s best bowler during the winter, might have offered England more than one of the seamers. Instead, he spent the day running drinks.
England were guilty of misreading the surfaces in the final two Tests of the tour to India. In the day-night game in Ahmedabad, they picked one too many seamers on a pitch that spun sharply while in the fourth Test, they picked Ben Stokes as one of only two seamers on a pitch which offered the fast-bowlers something. Depending on how this match progresses, it could be three misjudgements in a row.
Not that England are out of this game by any means. Their discipline meant New Zealand stayed within reach. Some early wickets in the morning will bring them right back into things. But nothing against this New Zealand team comes easy. They are one of the best sides in the world because they do the fundamentals well and more than anything, it is good fundamentals that win Test matches. Tomorrow, Conway and Nicholls will resume with a simple plan: bat time and bat big.