SACK the scriptwriter.
In a fairytale world, with New Zealand wanting nine runs from the last over to win the first one-day international in Hamilton, Eoin Morgan would have simply thrown the ball to Ben Stokes, who would have closed out the match in thrilling style.
Instead, the England captain threw it not to a man playing his first international for five months after the events in Bristol, but to his senior ‘death’ bowler Chris Woakes, whose first ball was edged for four, his second a wide, and his third dispatched for a match-clinching six.
New Zealand squeezed home by three wickets, overhauling England’s 284-8 on a slow, used pitch. Ross Taylor (113) and Tom Latham (79) provided the springboard, sharing 178 after the hosts fell to 27-3 inside 10 overs before Latham eventually scuffed Stokes to mid-on, Mitchell Santner doing the rest with an undefeated 45 from 27 balls.
Stokes was England’s most successful bowler with 2-43 from eight overs, also having Colin de Grandhomme caught behind as the home side wobbled, but he managed only 12 runs from 22 balls with the bat as Jos Buttler (79) and Joe Root (71) led England’s innings.
New Zealand bowled particularly well at the death, conceding only 67 from the last 10 overs despite the swashbuckling Buttler being at the crease for 9.5 of them, pacemen Tim Southee and Trent Boult ably supported by spinners Santner and Ish Sodhi.
Any thought that Stokes might bowl the all-important final over was soon banished into the realms of romantic fancy – he was famously clubbed for four successive sixes in the last over of the World T20 final in 2016 – and New Zealand kept their nerve, despite needing 41 from 25 balls (and then 34 from the last three overs) when Adil Rashid had Taylor stumped.
No blame could be attached to Stokes, although the same could perhaps not be said of captain Morgan, who has rightly received much praise for his leadership over a long period, but who got it wrong by sticking with Rashid once Taylor was out.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it was a gamble by Morgan, who had earlier appeared to let the game drift in the midst of a profligate England fielding display.
Santner promptly struck the first two balls of Rashid’s last over – the 48th of the innings – for successive sixes, and 16 runs came from it in total to leave New Zealand needing a much more manageable 18 from the last two overs.
As Rashid exited stage left with rueful expression, he could have been forgiven for reflecting that sport has a funny habit of kicking you up the backside.
Last week, the leg-spinner announced that he is now a white-ball specialist, having turned his back on the red-ball format.
But, in a one-day format of desperately fine lines, Rashid’s last over – and Morgan’s decision to keep him on – cost England dear.
On the radio, Graeme Swann, the former England off-spinner, did not mince his words when he said that England “bottled it” – not the first time that such an accusation has been levelled at Rashid, in particular.
However, Swann also blamed wicketkeeper Buttler.
“Rashid’s last over was very poor,” said Swann. “Buttler told him what to bowl, and he bowled a medium pacer in the slot. That was appalling advice.
“From then on, Santner had his eye in and New Zealand had their tails up.”
Yesterday was not so much about Rashid, of course, as the returning Stokes, around whom so much media attention gathers these days that he is cricket’s answer to Donald Trump.
Like Trump, Stokes has a habit of putting his foot in it at times, but there were enough signs, at least with the ball, as to why the Durham man is worth all the fuss – in conspicuous contrast to the American president.
Stokes is bound to be a little ring-rusty; he has played only a handful of games in New Zealand domestic cricket since the incident last September that led to his arrest and subsequent charge for affray.
It is an unpleasant situation to have hanging over him, albeit of his own orchestration, and it may naturally take him some time to find his stride.
Do not bet against that happening sooner rather than later, however, with the five-match series continuing at Mount Maunganui in the early hours of Wednesday morning, UK time.
Stokes clearly strengthens a side fresh from a 4-1 ODI series win in Australia, and with New Zealand also impressive in the 50-over format both teams have set the tone for what should be an intriguing and finely-matched rubber.