Test cricket’s return to Lord’s after a near two-year hiatus was a day to be savoured by the 6,500 or so spectators who sat dotted around the white stands like sprinkles on a 99 Flake. And for the three debutants on show, Devon Conway, Ollie Robinson and James Bracey, it was one they will certainly never forget.
Headlining the newcomers at stumps – cricket-wise, at least – was Conway. An impressive unbeaten 136 at the first attempt had seen the left-hander become the 14th New Zealand batsman to etch his name on to the honours board and, more importantly, driven the tourists to a commanding 246 for three with batting still to come.
For England it was a case of perspiration not quite transferring into the wickets column after Kane Williamson had called correctly at the toss. On a beige surface that offered decent carry but no lavish seam movement Robinson claimed figures of two for 50 from 16 overs on debut, while Jimmy Anderson nudged one closer to 1,000 first-class wickets when he bowled Williamson on 13 after lunch – the New Zealand captain’s hands too soft for once – for victim number 993.
Mark Wood delivered consistent pace over the course of his 18 overs, hitting a top speed of 95mph along the way, while Stuart Broad combined with Anderson for a burst of high-class swing in the afternoon when morning sunshine made way for cloud cover and a breeze came in from the south. Yet this quartet of seamers, augmented by 12 overs of Joe Root’s off-breaks in the questionable absence of Jack Leach, were unable to prise Conway from his rock.
Born and raised in South Africa but having emigrated to New Zealand in 2018, the 29-year-old had already shone in the white-ball formats for his adopted country after qualifying through residency. But his selection here, so close to the World Test Championship final against India later this month, was no certainty at the start of the tour.
Much like England’s decision to select another South African-born batsman in Kevin Pietersen on the same ground in 2005, New Zealand took the positive option and were rewarded handsomely as, over the course of three sessions he demonstrated why a first-class average of 75 over the past five years was impossible to ignore.
Conway is not an opener by trade, having done so fleetingly in the past with a top score of 69 for Gauteng back in 2010. The left-hander looks inked in for a long spell now, however, having shown diligence outside his off stump, guts when wearing two nasty bouncers from Wood and some eye-catching cover drives among his 16 boundaries.
He first found support from Tom Latham in a 58-run opening stand and then later on from another southpaw in Henry Nicholls who, after top-scoring for his country with 55 in that gut-wrenching World Cup final two years ago, delivered an unbeaten 46 from No5.
It was a difficult day in the field for Stuart Broad and James Anderson. Photograph: Gareth Copley/ECB/Getty Images
Nicholls was at the non-striker’s end when Conway’s golden moment arrived after tea, the opener flicking Robinson to the square-leg boundary with an extravagant flourish before a celebration more in keeping with this New Zealand side’s understated character.
Having earlier bowled Latham off the inside edge for 23, and pinned Ross Taylor lbw for 15 after a succession of inswingers, Robinson had started to flag a touch by this stage. And off the field, unbeknownst to him, a number of racist and sexist tweets he had written as a teenager back in 2012 had begun to circulate online.
It made for a jarring development on a day when both teams stood in front of the pavilion before the start in a “moment of unity”. The gesture was designed to deliver a public message against all forms of discrimination but, come stumps, Robinson found himself sitting in front of the Sky cameras reading out a pre-prepared apology.
It served to demonstrate how the spotlight intensifies exponentially at international level. The offending posts had sat on Robinson’s timeline for the best part of eight years. Yet, despite rising to prominence at Sussex, after Yorkshire cut him loose for a lack of professionalism back in 2014, it was not until he stepped out for his Test debut that the online world decided to trawl back that far.
Robinson had been squarely focused on demonstrating the skills that have delivered nigh-on 200 first-class wickets since the start of 2018 and, like Conway, made him impossible to overlook. Bounding in and delivering the ball from the top of his 6ft 5in frame, the right-armer clearly knows how to work over batsmen as demonstrated by the removal of Latham that saw both edges challenged in the set-up.
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Both Robinson and Bracey had earlier been handed their England caps in the huddle by the coaches Jon Lewis and Marcus Trescothick, the ceremony taking place as the reduced crowd filtered into Lord’s, stopping in their tracks to admire the new Compton and Edrich Stands that sit like butterfly wings either side of the media centre.
Bracey’s first outing pointed to a wicketkeeper with an abundance of energy if not yet fully grooved in his trade. A maiden Test dismissal was millimetres away on two occasions also, his stumping appeal off Nicholls on 29 seeing the batsman retreat in time and a top edge from Conway on 103 just evading the gloves at full stretch.
These moments were as close as England came to a breakthrough in an evening session in which the second new ball was taken but four overs were left unbowled. Conway and Nicholls strolled back to the pavilion amid one final ripple of applause, their impressive unbroken stand having swelled to 132 and their team in a position of strength.
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