If Joe Root enjoyed any honeymoon period as England Test captain then it will officially finish on Monday with more questions about his batting and even some new ones about his leadership at the end of his first chastening winter in charge.
England went into the final day of their longest tour for more than 50 years facing a battle to take the 10 wickets they needed to end a sequence of 12 away Tests without a win and at least square this mini-series against New Zealand.
But even if they were able to defeat both New Zealand and the autumnal weather conditions that looked certain to shorten the final day Root knows there is much to do to erase the suspicion that England are treading Test water.
Play was halted between England and New Zealand due to bad light on the fourth day of the second test
Joe Root reached his half century as the tourists built up a handy lead before opting to declare on 352-9
Dawid Malan also impressed with the bat before being removed by Colin de Grandhomme for 53
Yet again Root reached 50 as England left New Zealand a mammoth 382 to win here and take the series 2-0 but yet again, for the ninth consecutive time, he failed to convert it into three figures.
Admittedly, the onus was on quick runs so Root could be excused the loose drive that saw him edge Neil Wagner to BJ Watling on 54 but his failure to make match-defining hundreds is indicative of England’s lack of batting discipline.
Three other batsmen in Mark Stoneman, James Vince and Dawid Malan also made half-centuries without kicking on in England’s 352 for nine declared as the Test winter ended with only four English hundreds scored in seven Tests.
And then, as England failed to take a wicket in the 23 overs possible before bad light descended on Hagley Oval, came the unexpected development of one of their best recently retired players criticising Root’s performance in the field.
Graeme Swann clearly remains very much behind England in his new role as a pundit so it was interesting to hear him on BBC’s Test Match Special taking Root to task over his handling of debutant Jack Leach, who had impressed without taking a wicket by the end of the fourth day.
‘I love Joe Root to pieces but his textbook is a bit old-school Yorkshire cricket,’ said one of England’s great spinners. ‘I’d like him to throw that textbook away.
‘I couldn’t understand Jack Leach’s field. Why did he have an extra cover? Why on earth would you block the one area where you want the batsman to drive? The extra cover should move to point.
England look in a commanding position but now have to take 10 New Zealand wickets on the final day
New Zealand opener Tom Latham tells Jeet Raval to stat put at the non-striker’s end as James Vince and Malan look on
England supporters took to the grassy bank to show their support at the Hagley Oval on an overcast day
‘I’m going to find Root in the morning, rugby tackle him and tell him he must give Leach the right field,’ said Swann, who also said that Root’s run of 50s ‘worried him’ and added ‘Come on Joe, you’re better than that.’
It was not exactly on a scale with Shane Warne’s sustained criticism of Alastair Cook when he was similarly learning on the job as England captain but, even so, it is indicative of how far Root still has to go.
It was left to Jonny Bairstow, who ensured New Zealand would have to make the seventh highest successful chase in Test history if they were to defeat England here with an important late contribution after they had faltered in losing five wickets for 50, to support a captain he has known since he was a boy.
‘I think Joe will have learnt a lot this winter,’ said Bairstow. ‘It’s been tough and there have been things crop up that he wouldn’t have expected. And there will be things he will have taken from his first year in charge.
‘It’s very different to go from being someone who scores the runs to being the leader. He has to drive team meetings and selection and he has to have tough conversations with people when he leaves them out. He also has to have the confidence to stand up to people at times and he’s done really well so far in that learning process. There are many reasons why things haven’t gone well this winter and it’s for us as players to react and learn from them.’
There was passionate support, too, for Root the batsman. ‘Joe averages almost 53 in Test cricket and I would take that,’ said Bairstow. ‘He’s aware of the need to convert but he’s scored 13 hundreds already and is only 27. There’s not many people in world cricket who have averaged what he does after 60 odd matches so I don’t think we have to worry about him.
Raval pulls a Stuart Broad delivery to the boundary as the hosts begin their chase well without losing a wicket
Ben Stokes reacts in frustration after watching James Vince put down a catch that would have dismissed Latham
James Anderson appeals for an LBW decision as the England slips go up behind Raval in New Zealand’s second innings
‘When he does start converting he will go from averaging 53 to, well, who knows. There’s no-one else in our team does what he does and we’re very fortunate he’s our leader.’
Bairstow has scored two of those four English hundreds this winter but now finds himself back down at No 7 which is surely too low in an order batting coach Graham Thorpe describes as a ‘work in progress.’ Bairstow appears to agree.
‘I want to go on and score more hundreds so naturally it can get a bit frustrating when you can’t do that but that’s part and parcel of the game,’ he said. ‘When I’m contributing like today it can make a huge difference and as long as I have an impact on the game then I’m happy.’
All results were possible going into the last day but the chances of a draw were considerably increased by a typical display of cricket’s self-defeating regulations. Umpires Marais Erasmus and Bruce Oxenford took the players off with 24 overs of the fourth day remaining for bad light even though Root and Leach were bowling so it was clearly not dangerous for New Zealand.
Then, to compound it, it was announced that the fifth day could not start a half hour early because of dew but there would be potential to add eight extra overs on at the end of the day when it would almost certainly be too dark. Cricket really does let itself down at times and it remained to be seen how important that would be by the end of day five.
Broad and Root converse as the bowler and his captain look to get some life out of an unresponsive surface