Eyebrows were raised before this third Test when Ben Stokes declared England were in the entertainment business, not the sporting business. Some 48 hours later, through another swashbuckling century from Jonny Bairstow and debutant Jamie Overton’s unbeaten 89, it became apparent the new captain was deadly serious.
England had crumbled to 55 for six inside 12 overs after lunch on day two, having earlier seen New Zealand post 329 through another commanding 109 from Daryl Mitchell. For all the recent talk of playing “sexy cricket” from their head coach, Brendon McCullum, the hosts appeared to be suffering from, ahem, performance issues as Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner got the cherry-ripe Dukes ball to talk dirty.
But in a febrile second half to proceedings, as the expected rain stayed away, a well-oiled capacity crowd at Headingley was treated to a breathtaking counterattack from Bairstow and Overton. The pair plundered 209 runs in just 37.1 overs for England’s all-time highest seventh wicket stand, Bairstow walking off unbeaten on 130 from 126 balls and the score a far healthier 264 for six. Entertainment? You betcha.
This was Bairstow’s 10th Test century and his fourth in seven matches, brought up half an hour before the close from just 95 balls as he punched Boult down the ground for his 15th four and soaked up the love from his adoring home crowd. The Yorkshireman’s 136 at Trent Bridge last week was billed as the innings of his life but here was another to rival it, the ball repeatedly whistling along the outfield.
Overton was no slouch either, if a touch more agricultural on occasions, using all of his 6ft 5in frame to muscle the ball either across or over the boundary rope. He had earlier been slightly misused by Stokes in a bumper plan to New Zealand’s tail but was in his element with the bat. The 28-year-old will resume first thing needing just 11 runs to become the 21st England player to make a century on Test debut.
This scenario could easily not have been, Overton handed a life on five as Kane Williamson opted not to send a thwarted lbw appeal from Wagner upstairs. Had the New Zealand captain done so, England would have been 63 for seven. Overton made better use of the review system soon after too, given out caught behind on 13 and vindicated when the replays showed daylight between bat and ball.
Bairstow similarly had a reprieve along the way, Wagner putting down a tough caught and bowled chance when the No 5 was on 27. Neither batter was remotely ruffled, instead pressing down on the pedal with a blaze of boundaries that swiftly softened the ball and exposed a New Zealand attack that consists of three frontline seamers and a part-time spinner in Michael Bracewell. England are still 65 runs behind but, by way of disposition as the two sides walked off, they are in the ascendancy.
On another day a morning of 100 runs, three wickets, two dropped catches, a third successive Test century for Mitchell – brought up with a booming six down the ground off Jack Leach – and a DRS malfunction might have gone down as eventful . But compared to what followed, as Boult and co ran through England’s top seven like a dose of Senokot washed down with a pint of Samuel Smith’s, and the hosts then delivered their jaw-dropping prison break, this was the sedate part of the day.
There was a sense that things may start to accelerate after lunch, however, England following their eventual removal of Mitchell before the break by wrapping up the last two New Zealand in the space of 10 balls. Leach completed his maiden five-wicket haul at home – figures of five for 100 from 38.3 overs rewarding his endeavours – and it was time, to pinch a phrase from Rob Key, for the spectators to buckle up.
Boult, the world’s most prolific No 11, had been left spurned on nought not out and so channelled this into a sublime exhibition of left-arm swing that saw England’s top three all clean bowled.
Alex Lees fell in the first over, failing to capitalise on a drop by Mitchell at slip second ball and playing back to one that trimmed his off stump, with Ollie Pope and Zak Crawley, the two right-handers, then both playing around deliveries that swung in and through the gate to elicit the dreaded death rattle.
None of these three ruinous dismissals could exactly be filed under ‘Baz Ball’, nor Joe Root making it a fourth single-figure score of the session and 21 for four when, after surviving a run out chance, he fell caught behind to Southee.
Chiefly the situation reflected the clinical excellence of Boult, hooping the Dukes ball like a sorcerer, even if the footwork from Lees, Pope and Crawley was a little bit stuck in drying concrete.
The same could not be said of Stokes and Bairstow, the stars of the Trent Bridge run-chase crashing 34 runs from the 19 deliveries before drinks and the former even notching up his 100th six in Test cricket when he sashayed down the pitch to Southee and auditioned for a LIV Golf tour card.
In the case of Stokes it felt unsustainable, however, and the introduction of Wagner after the refreshments doused the flames.
Attempting to throw the left-armer off his length, Stokes charged his second ball only to chip to mid-off for a 13-ball 18.
When Ben Foakes then followed his earlier drop off Mitchell on 80 with a third-ball duck, lbw playing around one that swung back in, England appeared to be circling the drain. This is Headingley, however, and the entertainers are in town.