England became just the fourth team in Test history to lose after enforcing the follow-on, with New Zealand’s Neil Wagner dismissing last man James Anderson to seal an unforgettable one-run win in Wellington.
In a match that is sure to go down as one of the most gripping contests ever seen in the grand old format, it was England who stumbled at the line with Anderson feathering Wagner down the leg-side to leave England 256 all out chasing 258.
It was a staggering conclusion to proceedings and saw Ben Stokes’ men join the Australian classes of 1894, 1981 and 2001 as the only sides ever to suffer defeat after sending the opposition straight back in to bat.
Stokes made that decision after racking up a 226-run first innings lead, but lost control of the game as the Black Caps batted with brilliant resolve to take things deep into day five.
England looked to have the game won a couple of times, when Joe Root (95) led a 121-run partnership with Stokes and when Ben Foakes’ measured 33 took the chase to within seven runs of success. But New Zealand refused to lie down, scrapping relentlessly to take the game into the nerve-shredding denouement.
Wagner was hero with figures of four for 62, dismissing both Stokes and Root in the space of four balls, then show nerves of steel to have Anderson caught behind when one misjudgement could have cost him everything. He was also on hand with a tough catch that did for Foakes, just as the Surrey gloveman seemed to be rising above the drama.
It was just the second defeat England have experienced in 12 games under the leadership of Stokes and head coach Brendon McCullum and, like almost everything they have done since taking the reins, it came in jaw-dropping fashion.
The seeds of England’s defeat were sown by the top order, who contributed some wayward and loose dismissals, but they were almost bailed out by Foakes and Leach.
There were 43 needed when they came together, putting the ball firmly in New Zealand’s court, but Foakes was outstanding in guarding the strike and chipping away at the target.
Leach was happy to reprise the role he made famous at Headingley in the 2019 Ashes, when his one not out from 17 balls allowed Stokes to conjure an amazing win.
Foakes went about things in steadier fashion as he took the required runs into single figures and it was a major shock when he erred, dragging Southee to fine leg.
When Anderson snapped the thick atmosphere with a flourish of a boundary, leaving one to draw and two to win, everyone in the ground knew the result was just one ball away.
That ball fell in New Zealand’s favour, leaving Anderson barely able to drag himself away from the crease. He did not even call for DRS, accepting his and England’s fate as the Black Caps celebrated riotously.
Leach, who had batted for 71 minutes and 31 deliveries for his one not out, stared into the distance at the end having now been in the middle of one of England’s most enthralling wins and one of their most draining defeats.
A debate will surely take place over the wisdom of the follow-on decision, particularly given Stokes’ knee problem and his inability to offer more than two overs in the match. England’s remaining bowlers were certainly run ragged by New Zealand’s dogged second-innings resistance, but even so they will regret the way they failed to kill the game on day five.
Questions might also be asked about umpire Chris Gaffaney, who opted not to call Wagner for a wide as he dragged one way down the leg side immediately before dismissing Anderson.
At any other point of the match a margin call like that would barely register a flicker of attention but, at a point when the extra run would have tied the scores, it may not be forgotten quite so easily.
England will reflect that things might have been more straightforward – albeit less exciting – had it not been for a sloppy first hour that cost them four wickets for 27.
Nightwatchman Ollie Robinson lasted only three overs, opener Ben Duckett flashed to slip with his feet in concrete and Ollie Pope was wholly unconvincing for his 14. But most costly was the loss of in-form Harry Brook without facing a ball.
He was tempted into a crazy single by Root, left for dead at the non-striker’s end. With four centuries in his last five Tests, including 186 in the previous innings, his unintentional sacrifice was a body blow.
Root went a long way to making amends before he followed Stokes’ lead in falling straight into Wagner’s short-ball ploy. That set up a blockbuster finish, with England bested at the decisive moment.