Fri, 13 Dec 2019

England 355 for 8 (Buttler 88*, Pope 88, Denly 68) lead New Zealand A 302 for 6 dec by 53 runs

Joe Denly proved his form and fitness for next week's first Test against New Zealand with an increasingly assured half-century in Whangarei.

Denly damaged his ankle ligaments ahead of the T20I series just over two weeks ago. Tripping on a boundary rope as he attempted to take a catch in training, the early prognosis was that he would be struggling to recover in time for the Test series.

But he not only demonstrated his fitness here, he showed the tempo and technique that England require from their No. 3. And while there were moments when he looked hurried - he was a little fortunate to survive one delivery from the admirably hostile Kane Jamieson that reared on him and produced a fence that flew between slips and gully - he was, for the most part, admirably compact. On the drive and pull, he is as elegant as anyone in this team.

"When I first did it I was probably thinking my tour was over," Denly said afterwards. "It was pretty nasty. I was lucky not to do some really serious damage and it was always touch and go to get ready for this game. There was a bit of doubt.

"But it's settled down nicely. Whether it's the running between the wickets or playing all the shots, it feels fine. There's no discomfort. It's just a case of monitoring it and making sure it doesn't swell up overnight."

Denly's intervention helped ensure it was, in the end, a pretty decent day for England. Having set themselves the challenge of batting for a full three sessions - if that sounds like a modest aspiration, it's worth remembering that this is a side which has been bowled out for under 100 three times this year - they did so for the loss of eight wickets (and seven on the day) gaining time at the crease and acclimatising to the slower pace of life in this format of the game.

It wasn't entirely comfortable. The first hour or so saw New Zealand's fast bowlers extract life from the pitch that was absent for all but Jofra Archer when England had the ball and, had Ollie Pope been dismissed on 7, nibbling outside off stump, they would have been 126 for 6 and in some trouble.

As it was, however, Scott Kuggeleijn (playing, with England's blessing, as a far from like-for-like concussion replacement for Hamish Rutherford who had been struck by an Archer bouncer the previous day), had over-stepped and Pope was reprieved. He and Denly subsequently added 90 in 20.4 overs for England's sixth wicket.

Pope's contribution was, perhaps, just as important as Denly's. Despite his excellent record - he goes into the Test series averaging 59.52 in first-class cricket - Pope still has the reputation as something of a dasher. So it was encouraging to see him leave the ball shrewdly here, while still picking up runs from deflections off his hip and steers into the covers as much as from putting away the loose ball.

"Chris Silverwood has said he doesn't care how long it takes, he just wants big runs from us," Denly said. "That's what we've spoken about as a group: scoring big runs in the first innings, especially."

Earlier England had struggled against an admirable new-ball attack. Dom Sibley, struck on the helmet by a well-directed short ball from the impressive Jamieson, was then lured into an uncharacteristic drive outside off stump before Joe Root and Ben Stokes departed within a couple of minutes of one another.

Root could, perhaps, count himself unfortunate: replays suggested there may have been an inside edge on the delivery that was adjudged to have trapped him leg before. Stokes edged to the cordon as he attempted to leave one that bounced on him more than he anticipated.

As the evening wore on, there were runs for Jos Buttler, too. The most dramatic phase of his innings came towards the close as England looked to set-up a declaration; at one stage, his successive scoring strokes were 4, 4, 4, 2, 4, 4, 4, 6, 6, 4. Impressive as it was - few hit the ball as cleanly as Buttler in full flow - it was the manner in which he built his innings before that point that was most assuring for England.

Buttler is, in some ways, fortunate to make this tour. While Jonny Bairstow was dropped having averaged 23.77 in the Ashes, Buttler was retained having averaged 24.70. But the England management reasoned that Buttler went into that series suffering more than most from the emotionally draining World Cup experience and that, having benefitted from a rest, he would rediscover his best form.

On this early evidence, that would appear to have been sound judgement. Buttler has sometimes looked solid and sometimes dazzled in his Test career to date, but has rarely put the two together in a way that suggested he had found a method that maximised his undoubted abilities. He has, at this point, scored only one first-class century since June 2014 and five in total.

But while Denly, pulling straight to midwicket, and Pope, slogging to mid-off, squandered their chances of a century, Buttler got his head down and showed he had been listening to the orders of his new coach. He looked not just a fine strokemaker, but a fine batsman.

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