At Lord’s last week Devon Conway brought up his century with an ostentatious lofted flick off his ankles and over square leg for four. At Edgbaston he brought out the shot a little earlier – he was on only 80 at the time – but the contact was just as sweet, the shot just as handsome.
This time, though, among those watching it appreciatively were Joe Root, who had known it might be coming, Zak Crawley, who had been positioned to catch it, and Stuart Broad, a bowler seeking vengeance.
Broad and Crawley felt they should have claimed the wicket of Conway 36 overs and about four hours earlier, only for an umpire’s soft signal to go against them. It was not the only thing that did: this was not an easy day for England, most of it spent in the field, much of it without looking particularly threatening, and when they did threaten they were rarely rewarded. It ended with the tourists in an excellent position, 74 behind with three wickets down – and that only because Will Young was caught at short leg off what became the final ball, providing a first Test wicket for the part-time spin of Dan Lawrence.
Broad, however, was superb throughout. By the time his work ended, after he and Jimmy Anderson had made Ross Taylor’s first half-hour at the crease mercilessly uncomfortable, he had taken two wickets and conceded 22 runs in 15 overs, and a day that included his 37th Test duck – lifting him to second in the all-time list – must have ended in at least individual satisfaction.
Play began with England 258 for seven and amid speculation that Lawrence might move into one-day mode, scoring as many runs as possible while keeping the man at the other end safely off strike. As it happened the opening exchanges very much took this form, only with Lawrence muted while Mark Wood assailed the bowling. When the latter edged the first ball of the sixth over of the day into his stumps he had scored 25 off 21 deliveries with six boundaries, while Lawrence had faced nine balls and scored only four.
Some of Wood’s shots – a cover drive off Trent Boult, a pull off Matt Henry – were quite glorious and all of them were wildly cheered by another vocal crowd which in these early moments of the day was at its most excited – except perhaps for a short spell in the early afternoon when the Barmy Army was beguiled by the unpredictable bounce of an inflatable watermelon.
England’s total of 303 was both evidently under par and, from 175 for six, a decent achievement.
Now Broad set to work. By lunch there had been two bowling changes at the Birmingham End while Broad’s spell was unbroken, the 34-year-old out‑bowling his teammates even before the decision that enraged and re‑energised him. At lunch New Zealand had scored 43 runs, 10 of them off Broad.
He had already dealt with Tom Latham, who missed a straight one and will never be more lbw, by the time Conway was contentiously caught. Crawley dived forward from second slip and reached the ball just before it hit the ground, but the batsman stood his ground and the umpires gave a soft signal of not out as they referred the decision upstairs.
Broad was evidently appalled: slow-motion replays are seldom kind to low catches and these ones now have to be completely conclusive. Michael Gough, the TV umpire, was one of very few people to believe they were, insisting the ball was “very clearly on the ground”, which seemed a bewildering interpretation given the fingers arranged underneath it at the time; one thing the replays certainly did not provide was clarity.
These are hard calls with which umpires consistently struggle, so it seems sensible to be sanguine when they go against you. But it must have been harder when the batsman reprieved scored a double-century in his last match and was looking in fine touch again. Broad’s first delivery of the day had been greedily tucked through the covers, which set the tone. Twice in the over before the disputed catch Conway had hit boundaries off Wood and as at Lord’s he was looking confident and determined.
We will never know what might have happened had New Zealand been reduced at this stage to 32 for two, but one of the reasons this moment is destined to be discussed is that England created so few others to displace it in the memory. The afternoon session featured just one wicket-taking opportunity, Joe Root dropping a straightforward catch at first slip to reprieve Young.
But two overs before tea the umpires were convinced to change the ball, and with it England’s fortunes. For the first 45 minutes after the break Broad and Anderson had it, and the crowd, completely under their control.
Young had scored eight off his first 45 balls as he played himself gingerly into touch and got there in the end – there were, in particular, some fine drives off Olly Stone in mid-afternoon. Now Broad found his edge but the ball did not carry to James Bracey, and when Conway fell 10 balls later Taylor’s trial began.
Quite how the 37-year-old survived this period will remain a mystery to all who witnessed it, and the extent of his befuddlement was proved by his willingness to accept a poor lbw decision off Anderson, overturned only once Young initiated a review. The bowling was of such quality that it could easily have transformed a poor day for the home side into a perfectly decent one, but on this occasion the cricket gods had other ideas. The pity was that, beyond Broad and the only marginally less impressive Anderson, England did not.