Sidebottom steals the show
If there was even the slightest doubt before the third Test that Ryan Sidebottom is currently England’s best bowler, there could be none after the second day’s play.
While Sidebottom has earned many plaudits since returning to the Test scene last summer after a six-year absence, there remains the nagging suspicion that he has not been afforded the fulsome praise his exceptional performances have deserved.
Indeed, such is the immaculate manner in which he goes about his business that it has become easy to take his excellence with the ball for granted.
Applause for Sidebottom’s hat-trick en route to figures of 6-49 in the first Test - already muted by mention of the fact it came as New Zealand chased quick second-innings runs - was drowned out by the cacophony of criticism that arrived in the wake of England’s defeat.
James Anderson hogged the headlines on his comeback to the team in Wellington last week, and Sidebottom’s five-wicket haul in the second innings was seen by some as merely hurrying England to a win that appeared likely for much of the game.
However, there can be no question that the fullest range of compliments will be showered on Sidebottom after his display in Napier, which was nothing short of magnificent.
His figures of 7-47 - his best in first-class cricket and the finest by an England seamer against New Zealand - altered the course of a match the tourists appeared destined to lose after they were bowled out for 253.
But Sidebottom, displaying all the qualities that have made his place as secure as any in the England side, wrested the initiative from New Zealand’s grasp during a dramatic afternoon session that could well prove pivotal to the outcome of the series.
As committed as ever, Sidebottom bowled unchanged between lunch and tea, claiming five wickets in 13 overs to accompany the early capture of Matthew Bell.
Bell’s dreadful form may not have made him the most prized victim but, in dismissing Stephen Fleming, who threatened to take the game away from England as he charged to a 53-ball half-century, Sidebottom landed the day's most telling blow.
He followed that up by removing the increasingly fluent Jamie How, Fleming’s partner in a second-wicket stand worth 102, and decimated a middle order of Mathew Sinclair, Brendon McCullum and Grant Elliott as England’s celebrations reached feverish proportions.
It goes without saying that Sidebottom’s discipline was unwavering; a wide full toss to Tim Southee on the stroke of tea was the first time he erred during his heroic post-lunch stint, and an economy rate of barely two runs an over was typical of the control he has exerted throughout the series.
As willing as Sidebottom was to push his body to the limit - he required a tea-time ice bath such were the strains of bowling for two hours without a break - it would be unfair to overlook the immense skill with which he operated.
He moved the ball both ways in the air and off the seam - on a pitch, lest we forget, that was billed as the most batsman-friendly of the series.
The left-armer also varied his angle of attack intelligently, restricting How’s strokeplay sufficiently from round the wicket to induce an ill-advised drive that found only first slip, and clipping the top of McCullum’s off stump as he attempted to cut a ball that swung back in appreciably from wide of the crease.
Sinclair was hurried into a pull shot - testament to Sidebottom’s consistently testing pace - and he returned after the interval to wrap up the innings by having Daniel Vettori caught at gully, the fourth of his victims to perish courtesy of an outside edge.
It took his overall wickets tally for England to 52 in just 12 and a half Tests, at a highly commendable average of 25.
Such figures would make many a bowler proud, and they should ensure Sidebottom is ranked among the best of them from now on.