England middle order’s car-crash batting puts New Zealand in the driving seat | Andy Bull

In December 2011, a group of 11 sports car enthusiasts from the Japanese island of Kyushu were driving in convoy north along the Chugoku Expressway when one botched a lane change, clipped the median barrier, spun round and scattered the cars behind him into a series of futile evasive manoeuvres that ended in what newspapers would describe as “the most expensive pile-up in history”.

When the police arrived they found eight wrecked Ferraris, two Mercedes, and a Lamborghini strewn “in a great mess” along a long stretch of the motorway. The police chief described it as “a gathering of narcissists”.

In an apparently unrelated event, England’s middle order collapsed again on Saturday, when they lost three wickets in 21 balls without scoring a single run. Ollie Pope was first, leg before, then Dan Lawrence was caught at slip, and after him the debutant, James Bracey, was clean bowled. Tim Southee, who finished with figures of six for 43, did for all three of them.

So a match that had felt fairly evenly balanced – England were 238 runs behind with six wickets in hand when the first of those three wickets went down – lurched New Zealand’s way and England’s tail were left scrabbling around to help Rory Burns save the follow-on.

Zak Crawley was one of Southee’s six wickets, too. He went on Thursday evening, caught behind playing a similar sort of happy-go-lucky have-a-go stroke to the one that did for Lawrence.

Crawley’s was bad, Lawrence’s worse, the sort of lazy drive you might try after a very good lunch on a hot day when there was nothing much riding on it. It was his second ball and he did not think to move his feet, but threw his bat flat at the ball and edged it straight to third slip. Both deliveries would have sailed by wide of off-stump if the batsmen had only chosen to leave them alone.

Pope almost gave his wicket away too. He played a similar sort of drive against Kyle Jamieson when he was on four and only survived because he missed the ball.

He made a scratchy 22, with a couple of thick edges, and a couple of fine clips to the leg-side. Southee set him up by pulling him across his stumps with a series of away-swingers then knocked him over by whistling one back into his pads. Southee, who is 32 but was playing Test cricket while the three of them were still in junior school, made bowling to the cream of young English batting look like a pretty simple business.

Then there was Bracey, another bright young batsman, with a good run of scores for Gloucestershire in the county championship behind him, who played a leaky defensive stroke to a ball that swung back up the slope and knocked his off-stump out of the ground. On his debut, Bracey at least deserves the benefit of the doubt.

So set him aside for a minute. Pope, Lawrence, and Crawley, however, are the three most dazzling batsmen in England: extravagantly talented and with some Test experience now. Pope has played 17 Tests, Crawley 12, Lawrence five. And they were in trim, shiny and buffed and ready for a run-out in the first Test.

Coming into this match, Pope had made 123 against Middlesex, 245 against Leicestershire, and 131 against Hampshire, Lawrence 76 against Durham, 90 against Worcestershire, and 152 against Derbyshire, Crawley 90 against Yorkshire and 85 against Sussex.

They had the clear skies above, a flat wicket below and an appreciative crowd all around. What a mess they made of it. Pope, Lawrence, and Burns are all 23, and batted as if they had years of sunny days ahead of them, so could afford to squander this one in the knowledge there would be another soon enough. With Burns, 30, and Dom Sibley, 25, opening above, Joe Root, 30, at No 4, and Bracey, 24, at No7, it was the youngest batting lineup England had put out in a Test in this country.

They are worth persisting with, and you guess each will go on to play matchwinning innings for England in the years ahead. But no doubt it is a risk to pick all three of them in one team right now. Good as they are, they are not so very good that they can play many more innings like these.

It all made for a sharp contrast with the way the men who have made runs in this game went about their business. Burns was into the 90s and batting with Jimmy Anderson before he tried anything even half as rash. Conway, who has spent years working to earn even half the chance England have given to Pope, Crawley, and Lawrence, waited till he was closing in on his double-century.

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