Close England 360 and 183 for 2 (Pope 81*, Root 55*) need another 113 runs to beat New Zealand 329 and 326 (Blundell 88, Latham 76, Mitchell 65, Leach 5-66)
If successful, England’s chase would be the seventh-highest by any team in 140 years of Test cricket in this country (and curiously, the fifth-highest at Headingley), and yet, it would only be the second-highest of England’s three 250-plus chases this month alone. And though the fans will once again be welcomed in for free for Monday’s fifth day, only an improbable New Zealand fightback will now be able to produce the same I-was-there experience that Jonny Bairstow served up in that 299-run victory romp in Nottingham last week.
The fact that they probably now won’t was thanks to Leach’s best – and not coincidentally, his most confident – display in an England shirt. As in the first innings, when he gunned down New Zealand’s tail with three wickets in five balls, Leach this time rounded up their last four in five overs as Blundell was left high and dry on 88 not out, but the rewards were due on both occasions for his ceaseless efforts across a total of 70.5 overs, including 32.2 in the second dig at a tick over two runs per over. “I’ve not seen it or felt it this good,” Leach said at the close about the faith that had been invested in him. “It’s special.”
It was far from a solo effort from Leach, however. England needed to stay composed throughout an arduous morning session, as Mitchell and Blundell batted through to lunch with barely a flicker of alarm – save an lbw decision for Leach against Mitchell that was successfully overturned on review. And when, in the first half-hour after lunch, Blundell also got a reprieve on 52 against Matt Potts’ inswinger – an identical delivery, in fact, to the one that had controversially removed him in the first innings – less bullish teams might have allowed their heads to drop.
Potts, however, is made – as Stokes said before his Lord’s debut – of precisely the sort of stuff he wants to see from all his players. In the very same over, he landed arguably an even bigger fish. No New Zealand batter has ever scored more runs in a series than Mitchell’s final tally of 538 at 107.60, but on 56, he walked too far across his stumps to another pinpoint inswinger, and once again umpire Richard Kettleborough raised the finger. This one was shown by Hawk-Eye to be crashing into leg.
When the breakthrough came, at 274 for 6, New Zealand’s lead had already swollen to 243. But England sensed they had their opening. Bracewell, aka “The Beast”, emerged with a clear intent to fight England’s fiery attitude with some punches of his own, but after launching Leach for one big six over long-on, he was undone two balls later by some more canny captaincy from Stokes, who tempted him to take on the leg-side boundary once again with men set in from the fence at mid-on and deep midwicket. Sure enough, Bracewell picked out the latter with a scuff across the line to depart for 9.
The rest came fairly meekly, though not without Blundell at the other end raising his own intensity to build New Zealand’s lead with a series of smeared boundaries – including four in his last eight balls – to rush towards his second century of the series. But Tim Southee prodded limply at Leach to be bowled for 2 before Neil Wagner was caught behind for a duck – a thin snick off Leach somehow wedging between Billings’ thighs as Ben Foakes’ Covid replacement stooped to conquer behind the stumps.
There was just time for Trent Boult to smack one more boundary through midwicket before he too was bowled by Leach to complete his second five-for of the match, and the first ten-for of his Test career. Three years after his starring role in the 2019 Ashes Test at Headingley, Leach had reaffirmed his honorary Yorkshireman status in no uncertain terms, and as he joked after the close about being padded up on the balcony as England’s “night-pinch-hitter”, it was clear that he wasn’t about to shy away from further heroics if needed.
Even so, a target of 296 was not one to be sniffed at, least of all given the one glaring void in England’s force-field of positivity. Zak Crawley’s confidence is currently running on fumes – quite literally so when, after latching onto his first emphatic drive of another listless innings, he sold his partner Alex Lees a horrendous dummy in an auto-pilot run to cover. Kane Williamson slid and released in an instant, for Boult to flick off the bails in a fluid running motion, and Lees was gone with an angry glare at his partner for 9.
Crawley’s response was admirable, if ultimately doomed. Having begun his innings with a stilted determination to keep out Boult’s inswinger that had done him in in the first innings, he decided instead to free his arms and hang the consequences. A blaze of four boundaries in a single Boult over ensued, but then just when he seemed he was quelling his inner turmoil, he scuffed the spin of Bracewell into the covers and traipsed off for 25 from 33.
At 51 for 2, England had at least taken some lumps out of their target, as well as battered some of the elaborate lateral movement out of a ball that New Zealand were quickly seeking to change. And, having kept his own counsel while all the focus was on Crawley, Pope realised the time was nigh to take the attack back to Bracewell. Five fours poured off his bat in Bracewell’s next five overs – one of them, admittedly, perilously close to slip – and suddenly he was up and running. He brought up his fifty inelegantly with an inside-edge through fine leg, but the jitters that have been a feature of his early innings had been banished. So too any real doubt that England will romp to victory, maybe even by lunch on day five.
As for Root, he just offered presence and security in equal measure – the promise of permanence allied to the threat of acceleration, a trait that doubtless helped persuade New Zealand to burn two reviews in consecutive deliveries to hopelessly optimistic lbw shouts from Southee. Aside from that, his unbeaten 55 from 80 balls was most notable for his use of the reverse sweep – most particularly one extraordinary ramped six over third man off Wagner, as he briefly got bored of the big quick’s attempts to hide the ball with booming outswingers outside off, and so reversed his stance to help it emphatically to its destination. Wagner could offer only a shrug that somehow telegraphed disbelief and acceptance in the same expression. It’s becoming a default reaction for this New Zealand team.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket