The chance came to Joe Root as if in slow motion, low and catchable at first slip. After his heroics at Lord’s, he had spoken about repaying Ben Stokes for all he had done during his own time in charge. Now, Stokes was the bowler – and Root seemed certain to return another favour.
Yet somehow, a man with 153 Test catches to his name – behind only Alastair Cook among England’s non-wicketkeepers – allowed the ball to cannon off his hands and drop to the turf.
Sympathetic ex-pros in the commentary box wondered if it had dipped late. Most thought it a dolly. Either way, Stokes had been robbed of a third wicket, and New Zealand had avoided slipping to 170 for five, having moments earlier been 161 for two.
Joe Root was guilty of a costly drop as England were left frustrated by New Zealand’s batting
The batsman was Daryl Mitchell, who had three at the time. He walked off at stumps 19 runs short of a second century in this LV= Insurance series, and with the tourists an imposing 318 for four. It was the kind of moment that can decide a Test, and possibly more.
Earlier in the day, Zak Crawley had dived optimistically from second slip in search of an edge from Henry Nicholls off Stuart Broad – but succeeded only in taking an easier chance from Root at first.
Later, neither Crawley – perhaps now placing caution before valour – nor Jonny Bairstow flinched as Tom Blundell edged Broad between second and third. Broad looked furious. Up in the pavilion, Brendon McCullum looked impassive behind his shades.
A few dropped slip catches would normally barely merit a mention, but the errors were sloppy
Under normal circumstances, a few dropped slip catches by England’s Test team would barely merit a mention. But this is the era of Stokes and McCullum, who both regard sharpness in the field as a fact of life.
It had begun so well at Lord’s, too, Bairstow setting the tone on the first morning with a world-class grab at third slip to see off Will Young. England caught everything that moved.
Sky Sports treated viewers to a graphic that showed how England’s slip catching had initially improved under each of McCullum’s four predecessors – Chris Silverwood, Trevor Bayliss, Peter Moores and Andy Flower – only then to regress once the honeymoon faded.
Under their latest coach, it seems England have gone full circle, from scintillating to sloppy, in the equivalent of a little more than four days. Since 2018, their slip-catching success rate of 75 per cent is lower than every Test team bar Ireland, who barely play the format, and Bangladesh. New Zealand, by contrast, are top of the table on 89.
Now, the side look to have gone from being scintillating to sloppy in the space of just four days
It wasn’t just their fallibility in the cordon that had England fans reminiscing fondly about the good old days of last week. Time and again, fielders who had leapt around Lord’s like gazelles suddenly dived over the ball or deflected it round the corner for an extra run. If it wasn’t butter-fingered, it was ham-fisted.
There were none of the direct hits that embellished their performance in the first Test, while the bowlers overstepped five times in a day, having done so four times in total at Lord’s.
Of course, this doesn’t mean England are destined to repeat old habits, just as their excellence in the first Test didn’t signal instant revolution.
But it was a reminder that they have to be at the top of their game to trouble a strong New Zealand team who brushed aside the Covid-induced absence of Kane Williamson with an ease that might have proved beyond England had they lacked the runs of Root.
If Brendon McCullum (C) didn’t know in advance, he does now – life as the coach will not be dull
At Lord’s, don’t forget, England needed the first fourth-innings century of Root’s long career to see them home. They also needed luck: if Ben Stokes had not been saved by a no-ball from Colin de Grandhomme in the second innings, New Zealand would surely have won.
On Friday, armed with a ball that had swung for both Anderson and Stokes, England watched as Mitchell launched Jack Leach into the member’s enclosure in front of the pavilion and directly into a pint of cider. After that, it barely moved off the straight and narrow.
If McCullum didn’t know it in advance, he knows it now: life as England’s coach will rarely be dull.