Even without trying, England have produced a compelling Test match.
On Saturday morning, with New Zealand 226 behind and almost three days of the second Test in Wellington remaining, the follow-on was enforced. It was surely not the plan for the Black Caps to then rack up 483 and set England 258 to win, but here we are.
In England’s view the follow-on was the “positive option”. It is also the option that has left them in danger of a historic defeat, but left the rest of us with the prospect of a thrilling conclusion.
Whether or not enforcing the follow-on is the most positive option is up for debate. It is certainly the swiftest route to victory, though it can also be argued a more positive method is to nail the game down by batting again.
Not that this is a criticism of Ben Stokes’ decision. At the time it seemed perfectly valid to make the Kiwis bat again. The pitch was green, the sky grey, England’s bowlers had three times run through the home batting in this series.
But consequences only reveal themselves over a period of time. That is one of the beauties of Test cricket. Some 162.3 overs later, New Zealand had a sniff.
Styles make contests. Whereas England recovered from 21-3 in their first innings by taking a Harry Brook-shaped sledgehammer to the New Zealand attack, the Black Caps have gradually chipped their way back into the match, one Kane Williamson nudge at a time.
The former captain had managed only 10 runs in three previous innings in this series, but celebrated becoming New Zealand’s leading runscorer of all time with a chanceless century, his 26th in Tests.
Williamson plays the ball so late, he makes a broken clock seem punctual. At the Basin Reserve, arguably the world’s most picturesque roundabout, he left England going around in circles.
Even for an England team that has won 11 of its previous 12 Tests, almost three full days in the field will reveal problems.
As James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ollie Robinson began their umpteenth spells, they may have regretted confirming their fitness for this Test via text message the morning before it started.
The pace trio had miles in their legs from the win in the first Test last weekend. Whilst the sight of a Wellington green-top can have a restorative effect on a fast bowler, the Basin’s slow change to brown and batter-friendly can reveal underlying weariness.
In matches where records are available, only twice have an England pace attack returned a lower average speed than the 79.65mph Anderson, Broad and Robinson mustered in the second innings.
This was the venue where Anderson and Broad were first united as a bowling partnership 15 years ago. If this turns out to out to be their last overseas Test together, their abiding memory might be of Ben Foakes standing up to the stumps as Broad bowled cutters and Anderson coming round the wicket with four catchers on the leg side.
The frontline bowlers were not helped by Stokes’ reluctance/inability to bowl himself. Of everything that there is to unpack from this Test, the state of the captain’s left knee is surely most concerning.
Stokes has bowled only two overs in the match, none of which were on Monday. Even Brook’s “filthy medium-pace off the wrong foot” (trademark Joe Root) was called upon before Stokes used himself.
With the Ashes looming, Stokes’ left knee is to English cricket what David Beckham’s metatarsal was to the national football team. Even if his leg is held together by piano wire he will find a way on to the field to take on the Australians, but what impact will he be able to have as a bowler?
Stokes being Stokes, he still had an influence on this Test despite not bowling.
The decision to bowl Brook, who can seemingly do no wrong in Test cricket, turned out to be inspired. The part-timer having Williamson caught down the leg side for his first wicket was a moment bordering on the ridiculous.
Moments later, Stokes hobbled to the boundary and hurled a return to Foakes, whose quick-thinking to remove the bails ran out Michael Bracewell. New Zealand only scored five more runs.
Still, New Zealand’s total was the fourth-highest any team has scored against England after being asked to follow-on. England need to pull off the highest successful chase by any team that has enforced the follow-on.
If they lose, they would become he first England team to do so after enforcing the follow-on. Their first-innings lead would be the largest surrendered by England in a Test defeat.
Not that England will be thinking like that. They have already successfully chased four targets larger than this since Stokes took over as captain last summer.
Whereas a year ago a target 100 runs smaller than this would have put England as huge underdogs, they will return on Tuesday as favourites to complete a 2-0 series win with their seventh successive victory.
England want to create enthralling, entertaining and unpredictable Test cricket.
They have done just that, but perhaps not in the way they imagined.