Lower-order batting has been the saving grace for England for a while now, and it happened again today with the Mark Wood-Dan Lawrence stand propelling them to 303. But then Devon Conway and Will Young took England by the scruff of their neck and piled misery as the visitors ended on top.
New Zealand's inability to knock out the tail
The Faheem Ashraf syndrome has refused to leave the minds and souls of the New Zealand bowlers as ever since getting hammered by the southpaw and Pakistan's tail, there has been no coming back for the Kiwis. They keep turning up, with lesser and lesser and lesser efficiency and now, it is getting to a point of utter ridiculousness, especially if they have to clinch the maiden World Test Championship as it has turned into a full-blown conundrum now.
Another Test, another innings, another day and the same old tail syndrome resurfaced to punch New Zealand in the guts. After having England reeling at 175/6, New Zealand would have fancied getting the hosts bundled out around the 225-230 mark. But they ended up conceding 128 runs to pick up the last four wickets. It resulted in England getting to a par score of 303. And it was not a solid-looking Ollie Robinson putting on a show, but Mark Wood, who in all his tail-ender glory, was swinging the bat like a sword, with literally both his eyes closed and still getting away with it. It wasn't one-off, as similarly, the Kiwis had let England add 135 for the last four wickets at Lord's too.
In fact, since the start of the Pakistan series last year, New Zealand's showing has been alarming. The tail-enders (8-11) have averaged 18.84 against the Kiwis, which is the worst for any side among the top five nations. However, the lower-order batters have struggled against Pakistan (10.28) and India (10.92) the most, followed by Australia (11.81) and England (16.65) respectively. For one year before the Pakistan series, tail-enders, on average, were scoring (12.34) far less against New Zealand. The gulf between India and New Zealand's performances against the tail can prove to a decisive factor in the WTC finale that starts in a week.
Devon Conway is no one-Test wonder
What's common between Hamish Rutherford and Devon Conway? Both represent New Zealand, both are openers, both are left-handers, both made their Test debut against England, both scored big centuries in their first innings, and both did so against a bowling line-up headlined by Stuart Broad and James Anderson. But, that's where the similarities end. Hamish Rutherford could never live up to the hype post his debut knock and it took him another 11 innings to even get to a fifty, while he was dropped after averaging 26.96 in 16 Tests.
But Devon Conway, with yet another resolute knock, in the ongoing series, proved that he's no one-Test wonder. There have been many talented players who have started royally only to fizzle out later but Conway is not just ANYONE. He's a special talent. And the best of all, the southpaw makes it apparent, that 'I AM A SPECIAL PLAYER' and here to stay, with every passing ball, minute and performance, at the top level.
There was cloud cover in many parts on day two. New Zealand lost their stand-in-skipper Tom Latham early, having lost their regular skipper even before the game had commenced. There was Will Young at 3, not much experience at the other end. Stuart Broad was giving the vibe of one of those spells, which spell 'DOOM' for the opposition as he starts taking wickets in a bunch like a thirsty man takes cold beverages out of the freeze on a scorching day. How did Conway respond? He started driving the ball in a manner that Virat Kohli couldn't even have imagined on his first UK tour. But, the best of all, was his defence. It was rock solid. He was playing the ball ever so late. If New Zealand arrived in England thinking that Kane Williamson is going to be the man, they took the wrong train, as this is Conway's New Zealand, and he's the MAN of the hour.
Tom Latham's Achilles heel
From being one of the most promising openers in Test cricket, Tom Latham's downward spiral has been apparent, for some time now. The England series presented an opportunity for redemption but Latham has disappointed with scores of 23, 36 and 6 respectively. The Kiwi opener has struggled against in-swingers in the last three years and it was supposed to be a major caveat for him against England. In fact, before the start of the series, he was averaging 17.62 against in-swingers in comparison to 40 against out-swingers, as revealed by CricViz.
And all it needs is one major flaw in a batter's game for the opposition bowlers to centre all their plans around that. England, understanding Latham's weakness well, have been resolute in attacking him with nip-backers. Not only does Latham has an issue against in-swingers, but when a right-armer comes round the wicket and bowls the in-dippers, his average further decreases to 15. Getting the scent of the blood, Stuart Broad has left no stone unturned, dismissing Latham twice (including today) out of three times, this series, deploying the same strategy. Come round the wicket, unleash in-swingers, and BINGO! Unfortunately, from New Zealand's point of view, the southpaw has turned into a sitting duck, failing to find a way out against a relentless attack.
Indian pacer Mohammed Shami must be licking his fingers at the prospect of bowling to the Kiwi opener. A CricViz observation in 2018 noted that "Bowling to left-handers around the wicket, Shami averages 21.56, compared to 40.58 over the wicket." Given he's a master at delivering the combination that leaves Latham sweating, there can be sleepless nights ahead for him if he doesn't do enough to counter the double trouble tactic.