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Imperious Watling frustrates England as first Test swings in New Zealand's favour | Sport


A masterful century from BJ Watling on day three in Mount Maunganui drove England to distraction as New Zealand forced this arm-wrestle of a first Test back in their favour.

When Watling walked off unbeaten at the close he had batted all three sessions, having turned his overnight score of six into 119 from 298 balls and his side’s 144 for four into 394 for six. Given the Black Caps are down to be batting last, a lead of 41 runs that will grow further still is like gold dust.

This was an exhibition of rock-steady defence, punchy backfoot play and bloody-mindedness from Watling. Having passed three figures for the eighth time in his 64-cap Test career, to go with 217 dismissals, the 34-year-old has long been a wicketkeeper-batsman of some distinction even if it sometimes takes a while for his name to emerge when world XIs are being debated in the pub.

A day of just two wickets for England (and a whole lot of perspiration) was a day of two significant partnerships for their hosts. Watling put on 119 in 39.3 overs with Colin de Granhomme for the sixth wicket – the all-rounder continuing a fine match with 65 from 108 balls – and then 78 unbroken with Mitch Santner.

Santer’s 31 not out from just over two hours at the crease was not always comfortable but, like his senior partner, showed courage under fire as Joe Root threw both Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer at him in an evening session of bouncers.

As Watling whittled away – and what follows is not to detract from his fine innings of 15 fours, chiefly struck square but with a couple of sumptuous straight drives – England’s performance in the field was slightly troubling for a side claiming it is plotting a path to the Ashes series in Australia in two years time.

After removing Kane Williamson on day two thanks to some capricious bounce, Sam Curran struggled for any threat as the pitch deadened out. Stuart Broad was miserly, going at under two runs an over, but only occasionally beat the bat, while Jack Leach produced only a couple of threatening deliveries.

And on a day when two reviews were burned, players nit-picked over misfields and the travelling supporters tried – but failed – to inspire the troops, it was Root’s use of his two faster bowlers was arguably most head-scratching.

Archer first, who Root twice ignored at times when he might have expected to bowl. The first came at the start of the third day when Henry Nicholls was alongside Watling. The left-hander had to pass a concussion test before play having been struck in the head by Archer the evening before. Why not resume hostilities?

And then after lunch, with the new ball taken and de Grandhomme still in the foothills of his innings, Root instead turned to Sam Curran and Stuart Broad. When the beefy all-rounder comfortably drove the former for a couple of fours, his innings was suddenly up and away again.

Archer did send down three spells and, as well as having Jos Buttler leaping around on a tough day for England’s returning wicketkeeper, there was some heat within them. In his afternoon burst he cranked it up past 90mph but Watling and de Grandhomme repelled it all, the latter even taking on the short ball.

Archer had a curious day, all things told. There were times he nearly broke through, missing out on a reviewed lbw against Watling by height then later via an inside edge. But there were times he and Root did not look completely aligned on the plan.

And then there was Stokes, who bowled just four overs before lunch and wasn’t seen at all during a wicketless afternoon session of 92 runs. When he emerged after tea to remove de Grandhomme first ball with a long-hop – Dom Sibley taking a spectacular diving catch to his right – it at least answered the question about a possible injury niggle.

Sibley, the only person in Bay Oval to consider it cable-knit weather, was stationed at gully when the ball stuck in his bear paw. This was only because Rory Burns was off the field having some split webbing in his hand glued back together; a scarcely quarter-chance off de Grandhomme’s flashing blade had inflicted the wound before the break.

Had Stokes’s hands been as adhesive as Sibley’s (rather than Burns), Watling’s innings would have ended on 31 during a morning session that produced just one wicket. The all-rounder put down a catch at slip off the bowling of Root, whose mood slightly improved when trapping Nicholls lbw two balls later.

The drop by Stokes had come just moments after barking “this is a Test match” at Archer in response to a sloppy misfield. It rather summed up England’s day as Watling, the man who pinched the extra run, turned the screw.


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