As Joe Root and Ollie Pope peeled off a pair of sublime centuries on the third day at Trent Bridge, pushing England towards parity with New Zealand by stumps, Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum could have been forgiven for flouting the smoking policy in the old pavilion and sparking up a couple of Romeo y Julietas.
The big call at the start of their alliance as captain and head coach came at the top of the order. Root was restored to his favourite position at No 4 while Pope was asked to slot in one place above, despite having never done so previously in first-class cricket and after a winter of technical confusion.
Many an onlooker wondered whether England’s new-found mantra of positivity was trying a bit too hard. These are early days in the new regime, of course, and the combination of a flat pitch and a snooker table outfield at Trent Bridge must also be kept in mind. Nevertheless, with England responding to New Zealand’s 553 all out by reaching 473 for five at the close, and the bulk of these runs coming through Pope’s 145 and a similarly sparkling 163 not out from the relentless Root, the reshuffle has some early breathing space.
Certainly Stokes certainly seemed emboldened by all this when he entered the fray after tea at 344 for four. New Zealand were still 219 runs ahead and had finally struck back through the excellence of Trent Boult, bouncing out Pope the ball after pad malfunction and teasing a glove behind off Jonny Bairstow for eight. Initially taken aback by Stokes ransacking a 33-ball 46 that had Trent Bridge rocking, the tourists knew a chance was coming and suddenly they were soon celebrating again.
Though Stokes rather gifted Michael Bracewell a maiden Test wicket on debut attempting a third six off the off-spinner, the cool head of Root was still out there. The former captain had already brought up his 27th Test century – coming from 116 balls, also his quickest to date – and from 405 for five in the 95th over he resumed last week’s match-winning alliance with Ben Foakes.
The pair rode out the last hour under lights with relative assuredness for an unbroken stand of 68, even if Foakes was afforded one life on nine when Will Young grassed a swirling catch in the deep. The wicketkeeper will start day four on 24, though the bulk of New Zealand’s overnight discussions will centre around Root and a player who, after that 115 not out at Lord’s, they last removed some 278 runs ago.
Pope had earlier played beautifully for what was his second Test century in his 25th appearance and a first since the start of the pandemic, his proficiency either side of the wicket well-suited to the conditions in Nottingham. Gone was the player who signed off from a grim Ashes series with a reverse Rory Burns – bowled around his legs by Pat Cummins in Hobart – and in his place the batter they so greatly admire at Surrey.
Having resumed first thing on his overnight 51 – a staging post that benefited from a life on 37 – Pope met the challenge of New Zealand’s four-pronged pace attack by leaving well, picking the gaps and unfurling some crisp cover drives. By 1.53pm he was raising his bat to all corners after a clipped two into the leg-side off Matt Henry took him to three figures. The 24-year-old’s relief was palpable; so, too, was the delight of his teammates, with Root sprinting a good 40 yards to deliver a warm embrace.
Root, one half of a 187-run stand with Pope, was simply at his celestial best once more. He flirted with disaster a couple of times admittedly, seeing a misjudged cut on 27 tipped over the bar by Tim Southee and a slog sweep on 52 off the same man somehow land safe. But otherwise it was vintage Root, his cover drives fit to grace the walls of the Louvre and his guides past backward point so dreamily effortless.
It meant that for the second time in the day, at 3.33pm, New Zealand were applauding an opponent’s efforts. With the second new ball moments away, Root saw an inside edge off Daryl Mitchell’s medium pace just evade the stumps to turn 99 into 103. His 13th Test score north of 150 was at least secured in more convincing fashion when, 25 minutes from stumps, he clipped Southee through mid-wicket for four.
As for their English equivalents during the previous two days it was hard work for the touring bowlers. Boult was typically waspish for his three for 89 but both Southee and Kyle Jamieson offered little threat, with the latter also aborting his 17th over due to pain in his lower back. Henry beat the bat but went at nearly five an over and his occasional deployment as an enforcer highlighted the absence of Neil Wagner’s flat-pitch heft.
Henry did at least produce the one wicket during the first two sessions and, given the way things panned out thereafter, it may nag away at Alex Lees a touch. Not that the Durham opener did not advance his nascent England career. Resuming on 34, already his highest Test score in his ninth innings, Lees drove the third ball of the morning through extra cover for four and continued this positivity en route to 67 from 125 balls.
Lees eventually perished playing away from his body – Mitchell atoning for his drops at first slip the previous evening – but the left-hander’s graph is going in the right direction. As with the smoke that might have met Pope’s century, Stokes and McCullum will hope his sense of belonging in the Test arena tracks this upward curve.