England peak too soon but cricket becomes priority on feel-good day as second Test with New Zealand begins

Rory Burns (left) and Dom Sibley got England off to a good start

There was a moment in the afternoon, when England were swaying in the Birmingham haze, 175 for six, drunk off their own indecision with all the top five gone, that distractions elsewhere might have been welcomed. Not to detract from matters at hand, as New Zealand reasserted the dominance they could not cash during the first Test. But just to ensure the knives were pointing elsewhere.

Usually, that’s football. But beyond the chants from the stands, and the European Championships 24 hours away, all eyes were on Edgbaston for the second Test and England’s worrying fragile crop of young starters and next-boys-in. Then again, last Wednesday was a reminder frenzy beyond the field does not always bring comfort.

Yet by close, there was cheer. Not enough to ride, but plenty to assure Dan Lawrence (unbeaten on 67) and Mark Wood (16 not out), and the rest of the dressing room that things were all right. At 258 for seven, the match is further from lost than it seemed at 4.18pm. As England debriefed in the changing room at 6.30pm, they would have been thrilled there was nothing beyond what took place out in the middle that required their attention.

It has been a challenging week for all associated with the England team, and that includes supporters who find the game co-opted by an unnecessary culture war raging above their heads. The headlines emanating from the draw at Lord’s might have belonged almost exclusively to Ollie Robinson, but others were left with their own introspection. And, to a point, the broader issue of language and behaviour of cricketers was helped somewhat by a note-perfect statement from Sussex that advised that Robinson will be taking time away from cricket and will be given the full support of the county. They, too, reiterated a strong anti-discrimination stance.

Robinson, currently undergoing international suspension pending the conclusion of the ECB’s investigation into his historic tweets, was replaced by Warwickshire’s own Olly Stone. The fast bowler’s battling qualities were evident in a useful partnership of 47 with Lawrence, on a week leading into the first day that required plenty of the same from all involved.

The leader of this dogged resistance was Rory Burns, compiling an 81 that carried those first 175 runs. He was out on his own to a point, strong on judgement and line, and more active in scoring than others who fell short after England had won the toss and elected to bat first.

New Zealand grew into the match on day one of the second Test

The Blackcaps shuffled their pack, with six changes of which the two enforced were the most high profile. Devoid of captain and star batsman Kane Williamson (Tom Latham took over), and a seasoned wicketkeeper who averages 52 against England in BJ Watling, the odds tilted a little further in the direction of the hosts. Edgbaston’s 70 per cent capacity crowd desperate to make up for lost time after two years away gave this a feel-good sense from the get-go. Fun was to be had, regardless of what happened in the cricket.

Buoyed by the fresh slate of a new Test, and perhaps residual boozy fumes from an early start, Burns and Dom Sibley took a few risks. The 67 scored in 29 overs was greater than the pair (plus Zak Crawley) managed last Sunday, when they were 55-1 with less time but with a more direct incentive of a 273 target to reach. Their proactive diligence on Thursday made them the first England openers in a decade to bat through a morning session on day one.

As lunch was had, the noise from the Hollies Stand dialled up. While the seasoned feared they had peaked too soon, only the wisest and more pessimistic among them would have thought England’s best moments were now behind them.

Because that is how it played out from the afternoon onwards. Indeed, the end of the first over of the second session saw Matt Henry find Sibley’s edge to give last-minute call-up Tom Blundell his first catch of the tour. Crawley made it eight failures on the bounce with his second duck in that run, out to the kind of tame dismissal – fourth ball, hanging his bat outside off stump, offering an edge that Neil Wagner’s inswinger duly caught – to suggest last summer’s 267 against Pakistan was an outlier.

No doubt the truth of his worth lies somewhere in the middle, though the vast gap between that knock and this form still might not meet the standards of Test level. Similar questions are being asked of Ollie Pope, though the Surrey batsman’s feet are either side of the acceptable line he’s been towing for a good while now.

He made it 10 innings out of 11 this year with a double-figure score. But a 19, cutting Ajaz Patel behind, was about as useful as a sieve to shift the water entering England’s boat. And the paucity of this contribution from a number five was compounded by the earlier loss of Root for just four and the successive dismissals of Burns and James Bracey, to Trent Boult, that followed.

James Bracey after being removed for a golden duck

The pains of both were very different. For Burns, a knock of immense fluidity – arguably his smoothest of his 45 innings to date – seemed a carry-on of the confidence picked up in last weekend’s 132. Alas, he had to make do with a 13th fifth score above 50 that should have been a fourth Test hundred when he was smartly dragged across his stumps, edging a delivery to Latham at second-slip.

But frustration for Burns led to despair for Bracey. A similarly loose drive was similarly coerced, the difference being the desperation of hands and shoulders into a shot that was not there, in a situation that didn’t ask for it. A six-ball duck in his first Test knock and a golden one here is not reflective of his quality, though it does speak of a man out of position and, thus, out of sync. He hasn’t made his name as an unreliable flasher – quite the opposite – but as he remained in his crease, head bowed, New Zealand celebrated around him, it was hard not to see him stuck in that moment.

The slim comfort will be that the blip to 175 for six was not terminal. Lawrence, hands steadied for a third half-century after a twitchy start, was accompanied by Stone for just over 15 overs and remains unbeaten alongside Wood.

Given the pitch, you sense 258 for seven still gives New Zealand the edge going into day two. But the first 10 overs of the second new ball have been negotiated, the conditions sussed by the two who will resume on Friday morning and, mercifully, there was only cricket to digest when day one was all over.

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