A record stand for England’s first-wicket against New Zealand made the draw favourite in the first Test in Dunedin.
After New Zealand batted on and thumped their way 293 runs ahead by the time they declared their first innings, England were left knowing that they would have to bat for almost two days to avoid defeat.
Alastair Cook and Nick Compton set the tone, batting with patience and poise, combining for a stand of 231 for the opening wicket. It was Cook’s 24th, an England record, and Compton’s first, bringing tears to the eyes of his father in the crowd. Cook fell for 116 shortly before stumps, but with England reducing their arrears to 59 by stumps, the tourists have taken a major step towards safety in this match.
The day got off to a rollicking start. It had been suggested that McCullum declare overnight, but he justified the decision to carry on batting with some early fireworks.
He crunched Stuart Broad and James Anderson for three sixes, adding 30 runs to his overnight 44 in just 17 balls.
When he did fall, Anderson holding a steepling catch off Broad’s bowling, Bruce Martin picked up the mantle, showing good touch with eight fours in a brisk 41, until Finn bounced him out, Prior taking a top-edge behind the stumps.
Cook and Compton came out to the middle with almost a full day to bat out, but they showed the application which had been conspicuous by its absence in the first innings.
They blunted the new ball, with seamers Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Neil Wagner all finding that the swing had disappeared towards the end of the morning session.
The closest New Zealand came to a wicket was when they reviewed an lbw shout from Southee against the England captain – but a sizeable inside-edge meant there was precious little in the appeal’s favour.
And with the curious dark brown Dunedin pitch still playing true, there was little the Black Caps could do to knock the openers off their stride.
Both reached 25 not out by lunch, then moved obdurately into the 60s by tea.
New Zealand did not bowl poorly – but their earnest attack lacked an X-factor in the absence of assistance from the pitch.
McCullum did not let the game meaner, setting some intriguing fields, including three men in the point and gully region at one point for Cook, then two men at short midwicket for Compton.
Compton took a long time to approach what might be termed fluency – but given the context of the match and the context of his own future in the team, with team-mate Joe Root talked about openly in the press as a candidate to replace him at the top of the order, that was perhaps no surprise.
After tea, some of his more dashing strokes saw the light of day, including some sumptuous drives through the off side.
Cook, meanwhile, glided unperturbed and unnoticed towards his 24th Test century, extending his own England record. For a man with four Test tons in his five matches since taking the captaincy full-time, it had a certain air of inevitability about it.
Compton’s did not – and he struggled to move through the nineties. Twice he took reckless singles which almost resulted in run outs.
His nerves would only have been frayed further by the departure of Cook late in the day, tickling the ball behind to the wicketkeeper to give Trent Boult a well-deserved wicket.
It left Compton on 99, with 13 balls left in the day and nightwatchman Finn for company.
But a shot into midwicket against Southee meant that he finally got to three figures, after 50 minutes and 40 balls in the nineties.
He and Finn reached the close without further incident, and the opener will know that he has a chance to bat through another day’s Test cricket on day five. The draw is closer, but still far from secure.