Report by Neil Robinson 28/05/04
Five days of beautiful spring sunshine, five days of the untarnished splendour and history of Lordís, five days of thrilling cricket in which two evenly matched sides slugged it out like two Hollywood action-men wrestling for the steering wheel of a runaway juggernaut, five days that warmed the soul and made the heart race amid a dull, cynical world. And when it all was over, and an exemplary run chase by England had seen them home to victory by seven wickets on the final day, three more days of drama followed as the country waited tensely for the announcement of whether veteran batsman Nasser Hussain, century-making hero of Englandís second innings chase, was to bring down the curtain on a long and distinguished Test career.
There could have been no more glorious start to this summerís international schedule. After a Caribbean conquest whose value was obscured by the weakness of the opposition, the distractions over Zimbabwe (which this week finally claimed the scalp of ECB Chief Executive Tim Lamb) and with the sorry distraction of the Euro 2004 Football Championships looming all too close on the horizon, cricket needed a big entrance to make its mark in this narrow window of opportunity. And boy did it get one. This was a match which had everything, two old fashioned anchor-man innings from ace Kiwi blocker Mark Richardson, a colossal assault on Englandís bowling to mark the start of his last Test series from Chris Cairns, a fairy-tale debut for Englandís Andrew Strauss, playing on his home ground and looking set to become only the third man in Test history to notch two hundreds on debut until he was run out in a moment of madness from the ageing star for whom he was being touted as a replacement, and so much more.
But it was that agonising moment of farce in which Hussain called Strauss for a suicidal single and the young man sacrificed his own wicket to preserve that of his senior partner which set up this wonderful game for its emotional climax. Strauss, playing in place of England captain Michael Vaughan who had twisted a knee in the nets, had produced two near-faultless displays of mature batsmanship and looked certain to complete his second hundred of the match, when Hussainís fatal error led him to fall on his own sword. It was reminiscent of Geoff Boycott running out local hero Derek Randall at Trent Bridge in 1977, in Boycottís controversial first match back after a self-imposed exile of three years. Both culprits looked crestfallen, both might easily have crumbled and seen Englandís hopes of winning crumble with them, but both were made of sterner stuff than most and it was fitting that Hussainís innings should have begun to blossom from that point onwards. Fitting too that he should have brought up a well deserved hundred with one crashing drive for four, then sealed the win with another the very next ball.
It was an innings which, at the time, most people took for a vigorous reassertion of his determination to continue towards the goal of playing in 100 Tests, this being his 96th, but in an interview with BBC Radio shortly after the game, he announced that he would be considering his future over the next 24 hours. He wouldnít want to be responsible for keeping an obvious young talent like Strauss out of the side, he said, and a match winning century at Lordís might be the perfect note to go out on. For 24 hours, cricket lovers across England held their breath, then for another 24, then another. Just like a bowler waiting for Hussain to give his wicket away, waiting for him to give his career away took much longer than expected.
Only on Thursday did the final announcement come. Two and a half days of discussions with family, friends and colleagues, most of whom has probably urged him to continue, were not enough to dissuade him. In truth, Hussain is not the sort of man who would have aired such an issue publicly were his mind not already made up. Leaving the scene in the middle of a series might not be ideal, and the headache the selectors would have had in trying to accommodate Hussain, Strauss and the returning Vaughan is no more than they are paid for, but by the timing of his retirement Hussain both confounded his critics and followed the advice of one of the wisest adages known to the game; leave when theyíre all asking you to stay, not when theyíre all telling you to go. The only surprise about his decision was that it should apply to all cricket, not just Test matches, with immediate effect. This means that Essex, as well as England, have lost a key player, albeit one whom they have had to get used to being without. But it is a shame that, in this era of crowded international schedules when international cricketers so rarely turn out for their county or state sides, Hussain has chosen not to help raise the standard of county cricket and shepherd local youngsters by playing on for Essex for another year or two. While no-one can complain about the extent of Hussainís contribution to English cricket over the past 15 years, continuing at county level would have increased that contribution still further.
Despite reaching that awkward point where his age had caught up with his batting average (although that vital last century nudged the average a little further ahead), Hussain has remained a vital member of this England side ever since his recall in 1996. His departure might be expected to leave a hole in the side, but the evident quality shown here by Strauss means that the selectorsí principal concern now will be organising a batting order featuring no fewer than four specialist openers. Should complications arise, plenty of other young stars are waiting in the wings, Ian Bell, David Sales and Michael Powell all blossoming this spring.
A glorious start, then, to this summer of cricket, a glorious start for Andrew Strauss and a glorious end for Nasser Hussain. But there was little glory for England on the first day at Lordís. Winning the toss under bright sunshine and with the pitch looking dry and cracked after recent hot weather, Kiwi skipper Stephen Fleming really had no choice but to bat. It always looked like the right decision. Englandís stand-in captain Marcus Trescothick produced a more bizarre decision at the start of play in opting to bowl Steve Harmison from the Nursery End and Matthew Hoggard from the Pavilion End. Harmison thus bowled at the end where the bounce is less notable, Hoggard from the end where his natural outswing would have to battle against the famous Lordís slope. Harmison had apparently expressed a preference for the Nursery End, but whoever was to blame it was clearly a bad choice and the thousands of fans who had turned up to watch the destroyers of the West Indies in action found themselves watching something altogether more mediocre instead.
Richardson and Fleming feasted on some poor, inaccurate stuff for much of the first hour, until Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones came in to the attack and restored control. Flintoff, ever the miser, and the equally impressive Jones gave nothing away, until New Zealand frustrations began to boil over and Fleming, always keen to play his strokes, tried to square drive Jones on the up and sent a head high catch to point where Strauss held it with ease. How Nathan Astle survived those first overs against Jones remains a mystery, ball passed bat often enough to run up a significant account of frequent flyer miles. But survive he did, slowly revealing his familiar stockpile of thumping front foot drives and lashing square cuts. Accelerating as he went on, in the afternoon he produced one pull, off a 90mph delivery from Harmison which flashed to the boundary well in front of square.
At the other end, Richardson, nuggety, slow between the wickets, virtually strokeless, blocked, avoided and pushed, punching the odd half-volley to the extra cover boundary and looking in no trouble at all, except when Englandís pace men attacked his body with the short stuff, something they seemed unusually reluctant to persist with. Astle and Richardson had put on 103 when a good ball from Flintoff found Astleís edge, Geraint Jones pouching a neat catch behind the stumps. And here New Zealand stumbled, Scott Styris, looking uncomfortable from ball one, edged a beauty from Jones to the other Jones, then Craig McMillan, trying to attack virtually every ball and virtually always failing made a prolonged 6 before Hoggard trapped him lbw on the back foot.
But Jacob Oram steadied the ship with a crisp fifty, lofting Ashley Giles over the leg-side field more than once, while Richardson plodded away at the other end. As the close approached, Richardson looked all set for a century and a place on the honours board, but this was not a good match for batsmen stuck in the 90s. Later, both Strauss and McCullum would endure prolonged agonies of nervousness in making those last ten runs, McCullum falling four short, and Richardson too looked anxious and edgy. It was no real surprise when he fell for 93, lbw to Harmison hit on the back leg, but it was a terrible shame when TV replays showed up the big inside edge en route to the pad.
New Zealand still started day two in good heart, but an improved spell from Harmison quickly removed Oram caught behind for 67. The remaining four New Zealand wickets fell during the course of the next hour, Tuffey, McCullum, Vettori and Martin producing little, but 102 runs still flowed in that hour, 82 of them from the flashing blade of Chris Cairns. Ten fours and four sixes flew to all parts of the ground and Cairnsí grin grew broader and broader. One of those sixes left a spectator bloodied and sore, the third took him past Sir Vivian Richardsí record of 84 sixes in all Tests. In all he faced 47 balls, almost a third of which went to the boundary, and he looked well on the way to beating another Richards record, the 56-ball hundred at Antigua in 1986 which remains the fastest in Test history until a top edge of Flintoff flew down to Harmison and long leg.
New Zealandís total of 386 was no more than par in the circumstances, and Englandís openers soon made it look less than that. With Vaughan absent and Trescothick having endured a wretched winter at Test level, you would have got long odds against Englandís openers putting on 190 for the first wicket. But that is what they did, Trescothick, his feet still stuck in cement but his head stiller and his balance better than of late, leading the charge with some crisp off-side strokes, Strauss looking the part from ball one. While the 27 year-old Middlesex captain never showed quite the fluency or the timing of his experienced counterpart, it was notable how comfortable he seemed, how much time he had to play his strokes, how he showed equal capability off front foot and back, how sound his judgement was, how precise his placement.
Not just in statistical terms but also in terms of the impression created at the crease, it was as impressive a debut as could be imagined. By the time both batsmen reached fifty, Strauss was outscoring his partner, which is no mean feat when batting with Trescothick, without playing any of the eye-catching, risky strokes favoured by the Somerset man. There was little New Zealand could do to upset him. Their attack, lacking the extra pace of Shane Bond, looked moribund and one-paced, the left-arm spin of Vettori also lacking the spit and fire of those years before his back injury. It was only after tea, with Oram attacking the left-handers around the wicket, that any kind of uncertainty was caused. Four successive maidens here eventually tempted Trescothick into nibbling at a wideish ball and edging to the keeper.
Strauss later admitted to being particularly prone to nerves in the 90s, something Test opponents will no doubt pick up on, and for 40 minutes he finally displayed signs of fallibility. But in Test cricket it is at least as important to be lucky as it is to be gifted and there was no doubt that this was Straussís day. On 91 he slashed wildly into a front foot drive, got an inside edge and the whole ground, save Strauss himself, heard the definite click as ball cannoned into stump. But amazingly the bail did not fall and the ball sped to the boundary for four. A few balls later an uppish cut gave a difficult low chance to Oram in the gully, which was not accepted. Somehow another single was found, then a blessed wide half-volley was dispatched through the covers and the whole ground rose to a new local hero.
It was shortly before the close that a tired prod half-forward at Vettori saw Strauss caught at short-leg for 112. That brought in Hoggard as nightwatchman, and while he did that job capably enough, the combination of his strokeless prodding and Butcherís out of sorts display on the third morning did little to advance Englandís cause. New Zealand now came back into the game with a fine display of controlled bowling and tight fielding. Englandís middle order, the backbone of their Caribbean success, for once failed them. Butcher and Hoggard were both caught behind, Thorpe played on for 3 to a ball from Cairns which kept low, Hussain was bowled through the gate by Martin for 34. England had slipped from 239 for 1 to 311 for 6, hardly a collapse of the old sort, but a disappointing correction nonetheless.
It was up to Flintoff and Geraint Jones to craft a lead for the hosts, they managed it in style. For most of the crowd this would of been their first sight of Jones in the flesh, and he did not disappoint. While his keeping clearly lacked the polish of Chris Readís glovework and contained a few careless fumbles, his obvious class as a batsman more than justified the selectorsí faith in him. The impression he made with the bat was every bit as good as that of Strauss, in fact he looked as good as any other batsman in the side. Footwork and shot selection were exemplary, runs were scored all round the wicket, his use of his feet to Vettori was delightful, his cutting, either fiercely square or delicately between slip and gully, majestic. A tally of 46 off 52 balls would normally be enough to earn an enthusiastic send off from the Lordís crowd, for Jones it got a standing ovation. Even from the members.
Jonesís style was more than matched by Flintoffís power as the two put on 105 and took England into a healthy lead. Over the course of the last 12 months, the raw power of his shots has been harnessed to more mature decision making, and the eight fours and a six he produced in his 85 ball 63 were all the more awesome for the knowledge that this was not Flintoff cutting loose. The extravagant drive skied to extra cover which brought his downfall was a reminder of less prosperous times for big Freddie, but by then the damage had been done. Though the rest of the tail offered little, Englandís lead of 55 was a significant one.
The tourists found themselves in greater difficulty early in their second innings when Fleming steered a Harmison rib-tickler to short leg, where Hussain took a fine, athletic catch. With Astle struggling with Ďflu, Brendon McCullum was sent up the order as a makeshift number three, but he was to prove a surprising obstacle for England. A range of elegant shots to rival those of Geraint Jones sent him speeding past 50 while, at the other end, Richardson just kept blocking. Despite an improved bowling performance from England, the two Kiwi batters played superbly to wipe out the deficit and have New Zealand narrowly in credit at 134 for 1 by the close.
Day four, then, began with honours even and both sides aware that domination of the first session would give then a strong advantage. This would have been the perfect moment for Englandís much heralded pace attack to show its true colours, instead Hoggard and Harmison, still bowling from the wrong ends, served up an assortment of tasty leg-side treats for the batsmen to feast upon. Again it was the introduction of Flintoff and Jones, after 45 minutes which put the brakes on. Jones, growing in stature with every game, bowled quite superbly, reverse swinging the old ball either way at will, just below his highest pace. Time and again McCullum played at thin air outside off-stump, until, on 96, the edge was finally found and Geraint Jones pouched another catch. It was terribly sad for McCullum, who had played quite beautifully for much of his innings, but it served to show the combination of skill, perseverence and luck which is needed to earn a place on the famous honours board at Lordís.
Strong opening partnerships followed by middle-order stutterings were a feature of this match. Yet again Styris and McMillan fell early, both snatched neatly by Hussain at silly point as Giles settled into a tidy spell from the Nursery End. Next it was Oramís turn, a crazy single taken as the ball rolled towards the right hand of Hussain in the covers. The former England captain swooped, straightened and threw down the stumps with Oram two yards short. New Zealand were five wickets down and only 148 ahead, four of those wickets thanks to the excellent fielding of Englandís 36 year-old elder statesman.
Again, New Zealand fought back, Astle and Richardson reprising their handy first innings partnership in much the same style. Richardson moved to his hundred this time, just before tea, the emotion of the moment getting to him as he sank to his haunches for a moment to take it all in, before straightening up for a big leap, fist punching the air, grins and hugs from his partner. Already he had faced 20% of all the balls which would be delivered in the entire match.
But he didnít last much longer. Harmison, at last coming in from the Pavilion End as Giles continued at the Nursery, found a good line and length to take his edge. Astle, one short of a second fifty in the match, and Vettori soon followed in identical fashion, then Giles picked up a third wicket as Cairns slog-swept out to deep midwicket where Butcher took a fine, tumbling catch.
Nine wickets down now, and 255 the lead. The new ball had been due for some time, but Trescothick had avoided taking it, presumably out of concern that another onslaught from Cairns would be assisted by the harder ball. But now, with numbers 10 and 11 at the crease there seemed little reason for persisting with Giles and the old ball. After one more over, Giles was replaced with Jones, but the old ball it remained. A fine delivery from Harmison found the edge of Tuffeyís bat, but Geraint Jones put down an easy catch waist high to his right. Simon Jones seared one through Martinís defence and sent his stumps flying, but the umpire had called no-ball. Neither of these tailenders has any pretensions as a batsman, yet somehow they put together a stand of 26 crucial runs against the two fastest bowlers in England, until the underbowled Flintoff was recalled to the attack and clattered Martinís stumps with his first ball.
England needed 282 to win and had just over a day to get them. It would be the fourth highest successful Test run chase in England. They survived the five overs before the close with no alarms, but lost Trescothick early on the final day to a good return catch by Tuffey. Then Butcher, having been granted a reprieve from a bat-pad appeal, tried an ill-judged cut and gave a good high catch to Fleming at slip. 35 for 2, and a long way to go. But now came the partnership which took them most of the way there. Strauss, looking as accomplished and experienced as his partner, joined Hussain in a stand of 108. If anything, he played better than in his first knock, the timing slightly more fluent, the strokeplay slightly more assured. New Zealand tried switching things around, Vettori tried to snare him at bat-pad again, but no dice. Only when Styris and Oram came round the wicket, bowling into the footmarks outside the left-handerís off-stump and making the ball rear from a length, did the youngster, understandably, begin to look uncomfortable.
Yet the longer this tactic persisted, the more able he seemed to come to terms with it. With Hussain blocking as frugally as Richardson at the other end, a healthy Monday crowd was being treated to another classic display of batsmanship from the debutant.
There seemed little doubt that a second hundred in the match was his for the taking. But then, with the youngster on 83, Hussain played a ball off the back foot square out on the off-side and set off with the most cursory of glances. It was Straussís call, but Hussain made it and in doing so he had hardly noticed the brilliant anticipation which Cairns had shown to sprint round from cover. Strauss had hardly moved, Hussain hesitated mid-pitch, glanced over his shoulder, spotted the danger, moved to turn back then stalled when he realised he had no chance. By now Cairns had picked up the ball and it was on its away to the keeper. Strauss, realising that one of them would have to go, trotted past Hussain in acceptance of his fate. Hussain hung his head in shame, but he would lift it again soon enough.
Things might have turned out differently if a less experienced player than Graham Thorpe had walked to the crease at this point. But Englandís two middle-order stalwarts have been through plenty of scrapes together, and a gentle tap on Hussainís arm as Thorpe passed him reminded him of this fact. Hussainís fifty came up a little while later, off a painfully slow 158 balls, but the rest of his hundred would take just 44 balls to complete, making Thorpe look pedestrian by comparison. It was a final flourish to set the seal on a long career. So much of Hussainís batting has had an element of defiance to it, even here, crashing boundary after boundary in the manner of a carefree youngster, it seemed in defiance of those who had said that he was no longer capable of great strokeplay, just as his athletic, brilliant fielding in this match was a riposte to the charges that a man of his age should hand over to younger, fresher talents.
Now there was no-one watching who could doubt Hussainís right to be there, the undiminished nature of his powers. Though in making his retirement address he later spoke of the fire in the belly and the sharpness of the eye being slightly the worse for age, there was no sign of it here. Englandís charge to victory was now greeted, for the first time, by a degree of acquiescence from the New Zealanders, acceptance that the battle would have to be renewed at Headingley, but could not be won here. Fittingly, Hussain finished things off with three consecutive boundaries; a lofted on drive, a full-blooded thump through the covers to bring up his hundred, then, after a joyous delay as all Lordís rose to this steely hero, an identical cover drive, perhaps even straighter this time, a final defiant message to all those who had criticised him for playing too square in his career.
It was a brilliant display to go out on, the only sour note being that under the new rules, with the scores level before that final hit, that classical final boundary only counted one. It passed almost unnoticed in the rapture, but if that had been a six to bring up his hundred and finish the game, what then?
Ah well. So long Nasser, and thanks. The future may be bright for England, but you will be missed.
New Zealand 386 (Richardson 93, Cairns 82, Oram 67, Astle 64, Harmison 4-126) & 336 (Richardson 101, McCullum 96, Harmison 4-76)
England 441 (Strauss 112, Trescothick 86, Flintoff 63) & 282-3 (Hussain 103*, Strauss 83, Thorpe 51*)
England won by 7 wickets
Man of the Match