By Mark Whalley
Matt Prior was England’s hero at the death in their third and final test match of their tour of New Zealand, which the tourists drew by the skin of their teeth.
The wicket-keeper batsman hit an unbeaten 110 and expertly shepherded the tail as England finished their on 315 for 9, ensuring a third draw to finish the series in stalemate.
The century was his seventh in test cricket but, more crucially, was also his longest, at four hours and 29 minutes.
England started the day with history against them – only twice in test history has a side been four down going into day five and batted out the whole day. What’s more, in finishing day four 90 for 4, England had lost Alistair Cook and Jonathon Trott – two of their most experienced and obdurate batsmen.
On their side though was a benign pitch, and a mental strength alien to the flimsier England teams of the 90s and early 2000s.
The target of 481 runs for victory was an irrelevance. No side has ever successfully hunted down that amount to win a test match, and England had neither the time nor the wickets in hand to even consider a run chase.
Ian Bell and Joe Root knuckled down early in the knowledge that a significant burden would be on them to see out a majority of the 90 overs.
The pair looked composed for much of the morning session, but the new ball had an instant impact, with left-arm seamer Trent Boult snaking the first delivery with the new cherry into Root’s pads, to have him plumb LBW for 29.
This brought fellow Yorkshireman Jonny Bairstow to the crease.
Bairstow, however, has played very little first class cricket in the last six months, and his rustiness was evident. He eventually edged the impressive Tim Southee behind to Ross Taylor for the addition of only six runs.
Prior is regarded as the world’s premier keeper-batsman, and decided that playing his natural aggressive game was his best chance of avoiding mistakes and keeping New Zealand at bay.
He and Bell saw out the best part of 25 overs before the latter perished to the bowling of Wagner, caught by Southee.
Stuart Broad then showed his mettle, defying his poor batting form by blocking and leaving his first 60 deliveries. By the time a ball squirted off his bat for a couple of runs, he had set a new world record by occupying the crease for 103 minutes without scoring.
With only a few overs to go, part-time spinner Kane Williamson removed first Broad and then James Anderson two balls later, to expose England’s final – and poorest – batsman, Monty Panesar.
Prior was up to the challenge, however, and hogged the strike, leaving Monty only five balls to deal with, before the match was drawn.
It was a day of reprieves for England and sheer frustration for New Zealand, who dominated most of the match and will feel they had done enough to earn a shock series victory.
England enjoyed a series of fortuitous events and near-misses, including dropped catches, overturned LBW appeals, and a bizarre incident when Prior played the ball onto his stumps, only for the bails to remain firm.
Though they escaped from Auckland with a 0-0 drawn series, the tourists will be acutely aware that they were expected to win comfortably.
Instead, a combination of complacency and fine New Zealand cricket left them perilously close to a damaging defeat.
With two Ashes series back-to-back at the end of the year, England know they will need to improve considerably if 2013 is to be regarded as a success.