England 264 for 6 (Bairstow 130*, Overton 89*) trail New Zealand 329 (Mitchell 109, Blundell 55, Leach 5-100) by 65 runs
Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth…there is no spoon. Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
Brendon McCullum probably doesn’t sit cross-legged on England’s dressing-room floor, spouting karmic platitudes while aiming to demonstrate that he is indeed The One. But whatever preposterous mind-tricks he has unleashed on his new England charges, the upshot in the space of three Tests has been nothing short of mind-bending.
By the close of a thoroughly raucous day, even Headingley’s Western Stand – which must have assumed it had seen it all in England’s comeback win against Australia three years ago – was finding new hosannahs with which to hail a pair of heroes new and old. Bairstow led the teams from the field with a salute to all corners of his home ground, after his second century in consecutive innings and his fourth of a calendar year that is suddenly beginning to take on epic proportions. As for Overton, he simply followed sheepishly in his wake, head slightly bowed as if bewildered by what he had just witnessed, let alone played an equal part in.
The bald facts of their partnership were startling enough. Not only was their unbroken seventh-wicket stand of 209 the highest in England’s Test history, it came from an unconscionable 223 balls, with the two men lumping 33 fours and two sixes between them. The lions’ share, inevitably, belonged to the imperious Bairstow, who made last week’s 77-ball matchwinner at Trent Bridge seem like a prologue. But the more astonishing performance belonged to his junior partner, a fast bowler on debut who marched back to the dressing-room on 89 not out from 106, just 11 runs shy of only the second first-class hundred of his ten-year professional career.
But then, when you factor in the starting point for their alliance – a grim scoreline of 55 for 6, with New Zealand’s greatest seam trio of Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner rolling back the years with a reunion for the ages, and the stand takes on genre-bending properties.
Boult, in particular, produced arguably the greatest new-ball spell of his already outstanding career. After New Zealand’s first innings had been wound up for 329 in a flurry of wickets either side of lunch – including that of Daryl Mitchell, whose excellent 109 was his third century in as many games, but has already been overshadowed for the third time in a row – Boult tore out of the blocks with a searing display of pace, accuracy and wicked movement both ways.
In the space of his first four overs, he bowled each of England’s hapless top three, Alex Lees, Ollie Pope and Zak Crawley – picking off a different stump for each man as if to highlight the pinpoint nature of his display. Crawley in particular looked a man resigned to his fate as he drove futilely through an inswinger to lose his middle stump – and as he traipsed back to the dressing-room for 6, he was arguably the exception that proved the rule that all of this really is in the mind, after all.
Southee, a lacklustre bystander in last week’s Trent Bridge onslaught, then served notice of his enduring qualities by dislodging England’s kingpin, to leave England on the canvas at 21 for 4. Four balls after turning Joe Root inside-out for a fat snick through the cordon, he went wider on the crease, speared in the fuller length, and demanded the defensive push as the ball snicked off the edge and into Tom Blundell’s gloves.
Out strode Ben Stokes, even at this moment of grim adversity, still pumped with his pre-match exhortations that England would “come harder” and “be entertaining”.
“‘Fancy doing another Trent Bridge?’ was the first thing we said,” Bairstow told Sky Sports shortly after the close, and from the moment Stokes galloped to the pitch of his first delivery from Southee to shut down the swing, it was clear that the captain remained true to his overarching philosophy.
In the end, his attempt at a counterattack came a cropper shortly after he’d thumped the 100th six of his Test career, as Wagner – the ideal adversary for a man in such a mood – hit his length with extra venom to induce a spliced drive to mid-off. In the same over, Wagner fired in the inswinger to pin Ben Foakes for a duck, but – in a moment reminiscent of England’s failure to review an lbw against Mitchell on the first day – Wagner missed the chance for his third in two overs, when Overton – also on 8 at the time – was pinned in front of leg stump but got away without a second opinion.
No matter, it seemed at the time. And similarly, an early let-off for Bairstow on 27 – dropped by Wagner in his followthrough – surely couldn’t have long-term ramifications as England limped to tea on 91 for 6, still a daunting 238 runs adrift.
But then… things just started to happen once again. And not for the first time this series, it was arguably a change of ball for New Zealand that kick-started England’s intentions. As Bairstow and Overton settled into the evening session, the harder replacement began to travel harder off a pair of well-primed blades, with Bairstow bringing up a 51-ball fifty with a pair of Root-esque deflections for four through third man – the certainty in the stroke telegraphing the fact that Boult’s dramatic lateral movement was beginning to desert him.
And if self-affirmation is the secret of England’s renewed success, then that stake in the ground for Overton was all the excuse he needed to take his innings up a notch. Wagner’s heavy-metal attitude to adversity is to go short and shorter, but Overton was equal to his bumper by blatting another pull over midwicket for six, and launched two more fours through the covers in three balls to drive him from the attack in a 14-run over.
By now, it’s fair to say, Bairstow had his “Jonny eyes” back in. He pumped the lesser-spotted seam of Mitchell through mid-on to march to 97, then one over later, zapped the returning Boult through mid-off to bring up his tenth Test hundred, and his first at Headingley since his last annus mirablis way back in 2016. The remainder of his day passed in a blizzard of aggression, as New Zealand’s expectation of a huge lead and a consolation victory frittered away to the hope that someone, somehow, will stop the pain.
New Zealand were even left feeling aggrieved by the sort of minor controversy that Test cricket has traditionally loved to dine out on – when Tom Blundell was given out to a marginal lbw on 55 but had no recourse to a review because the DRS had gone haywire. In days gone by, such a moment could have remained the talking point deep into the close of play. Such narratives are moving on rather quickly all of a sudden. Or are they simply staying still, and it’s England that’s moving around them?
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket