What a shame about the rain. Without losing all of Friday’s play, this would be a thrillingly poised Test. While it is not beyond the realms of possibility for either side to force a win on the final day, the draw is the strong favourite. We need a truly thrilling fifth day – including an impressive collapse from someone – for that to happen.
From an English perspective, that is largely down to Rory Burns, whose third Test century – an innings of defiance, of phases, and of class – held together a crumbly batting performance.
Burns’ knock was necessary in every sense. His place in England’s side was in danger, having not scored a century since 2019, averaged under 10 since last August and been dropped on the recent tour of India.
Still, he is a senior man in an order showing its inexperience. While it was hard to fault Joe Root when he edged a fine delivery from Kyle Jamieson to first slip from the first ball of the day, Burns was made to watch some bad batting from the non-striker’s end. But Ollie Pope, lbw losing his balance (like Dom Sibley), and Dan Lawrence (caught behind the wicket flailing wildly at a drive), certainly were at fault. So too was James Bracey, who left a gaping gate that Tim Southee barged through.
At that stage, England were still 39 shy of avoiding the follow-on; their batters had much to consider. Southee, who took six for 43 in a simply stunning delay, was just too good for them.
The strokes played by the tailenders Mark Wood (the fourth duck of the innings) and Stuart Broad (dismissed the ball after a memorable six off Neil Wagner) were not especially pretty, either.
Unsurprisingly, given the carnage at the other end, this was an innings of stages. The first, on Thursday, was terrific, even flowing. On Saturday, after a day lost to rain, he watched wickets fall – right from the very first ball – and scored just 13 runs in a morning session dominated by New Zealand.
After lunch, he found an ally in Ollie Robinson, who scored 43 of their stand of 62. Burns seemed to lose his way a little. He was hit on the helmet, twice. On 77, BJ Watling missed a bad stumping chance. On 88, he was badly dropped by Southee at second slip off Wagner. The umpire’s call was his friend with a couple of lbw shouts. By the time England scored their 100th run of the day, just 28 had come off the bat of the ever-present opener.
When Broad was the ninth man to fall, Burns had 91, and was experiencing his iffy phase. But, helped by James Anderson surviving two deliveries to end an over when he had 98, he slipped back into fluent mode and – having reached his century from his 267th ball – opened the shoulders. He smote the first six of his Test career, a Stokesian slog sweep off Neil Wagner into the Mound Stand, and played a series of delightful strokes. So did Anderson, come to mention it.
Burns’ knock delayed tea, and took England to within 103 of New Zealand. He was caught behind off the returning Southee, the second time in the match an opener had been last man out.
The final session appeared a dangerous one for the hosts, but the Black Caps were unable to hurt England. They scored 21 from the first 13 overs, and were 62 for two at stumps – with the nightwatchman Wagner at the crease. The lead is 165.
Anderson and Broad had been terrific, but again it was Robinson with the wickets. He forced Devon Conway to play on, leaving his Test average at 111.5 after one game, then pinned Kane Williamson lbw on review, to almost everyone’s surprise. It was a moment to cheer at the end of a compelling day. Damn that rain.