The match, till date, is considered to be the “most glorious failure in the history of Test cricket”
The 2002 Christchurch Test between New Zealand and England witnessed everything from a skipper’s ton, a Player of the Match’s effort of a double century and a six-wicket haul in the final innings. Sixteen years have passed since then, but the impact of one player in that particular Test still seems on the top. There is yet to be played an innings that could surpass Nathan Astle’s world record fastest double century of 222 off 168 deliveries.
Winding 16 years back, New Zealand won the toss and Stephen Fleming put England to bat first. The Kiwis could not have asked for a better start when their pacer Chris Cairns reduced England for 0 for the loss of two wickets in the first five balls. He received support from the rest of the attack and that led to bowling out England to a mere 228 runs, despite Captain Nassir Hussain’s century. However, in reply to that, the hosts’ performance was far worse ; a brilliant seven-for from Matthew Hoggard saw New Zealand getting bundled out for just 147 runs.
Graham Thorpe’s unbeaten 200 gave England a good lead and New Zealand were left with little over two days to chase down 550 runs. Kiwi openers somehow saw-through the third day as they were 28 for no loss at stumps. The next day, the hosts began to lose wickets quickly before Astle entered the field. What followed has still remained a beautiful memory that brought a smile on the Kiwis’ face even today. Why just the Kiwis? It could cheer any cricket fan who would have watched it live.
Let’s live through those 52.1 overs, once again: BlackCaps are striding at the crease, they are 119 for 3, still 430 runs behind the English and that’s when Nathan Astle walks to the middle.
He was quiet for the first eight balls he faced before he went after Hoggard with two back to back boundaries in the 46th over. After a gap of a couple of overs, Astle struck a four on the last ball of the 49th over off Caddick’s bowling. The New Zealander smashed the same bowler for two more boundaries in the latter’s very next over. Astle had skipper Fleming on the other side and the duo together piled up 70 runs for the fourth wicket, not sparing any given bowler the English sent in.
In the 55th over, Fleming gloved the ball off Andrew Flintoff’s bowling. That saw Craig McMillan joining Astle in the middle. The dismissal slowed down the Kiwi innings as the two managed a boundary each in the next seven overs. The slow run rate and fall of wickets at the wrong times hinted that England would win the Test with an ease. Just when England would have got these thoughts Astle launched himself again in support with McMillan. He smashed two sixes and a four, while McMillan scored a four in the next three overs before the latter’s innings was brought to an end on the first delivery of the 67th over.
From there on as Astle kept sailing in the ship from one end, he saw his teammates falling off from the other end. Subsequent to McMillan’s wicket, he only received the required support from Daniel Vettori in the middle before the last man injured Cairns played the second fiddle and while the partnership lasted, even the impossible – 550 runs to win – seemed within his scope.
Astle brought his century off 114 balls. When the eighth wicket fell, he knew he had only two more men left in his army and out of which, one was injured. There, he decided to try and test the famous method – attack is the best defence. With the various stroke-plays and choice of shots, he left a full-fledged English attack clueless. English skipper Nassir Hussain was one of the those whose face was clear as water and it would give away his then mood. When Astle marched alone scripting that could turn out to be an unbelievable run-chase (if successful), Hussain’s bewildered face only bettered the atmosphere for the locals at the Christchurch Stadium.
The local star brought converted his first hundred into a second in mere 39 balls. Bringing some perspective to this, it was 2002 – one year before the T20 cricket came into existence, five years before the inaugural ICC World T20 and good six years before the inception of the Indian Premier League. His destruction post his first century lasted for another 21 overs and that indirectly gave away the picture of cricket’s future. Till date, only three batsmen in ODI cricket and nine batsmen in T20s have scored a ton at that rate.
When the injured Cairns joined the in-fire Astle at the crease, New Zealand were still 217 runs behind the target.With Astle’s that state with the bat, an incredible victory was written all over the cards for the hosts. In the next 11 overs, Hussain tried all his weapons – Caddick, Hoggard, Giles, and Flintoff, but nothing worked. They were thrashed left, right and centre a total of 15 boundaries from the final two men from the Kiwi camp.
While Astle was on song, he took everyone along with him in a world of imagination. Nothing seemed real. When Astle swept Giles for a single in the 91st over and reached the 200-mark off just 138 balls, the reality would have hit, because the man stopped for a while, carried his bat high in the air and roared out loud. That’s when it would have hit the spectators and viewers that the stuff they had been watching was for real and not a dream.
When the lead came under 100 runs, Astle was finally broken. When he tried to hit a wide Hoggard half-volley over the point, he only edged it to the keeper, bringing the 10-plus over of madness to an end and allowed England to breathe the air of relief.
England would have won the Test by 98 runs, but even today, the 2002 Christchurch Test is remembered for Nathan Astle’s masterclass!