Mount Maunganui: New Zealand targeted the wicket of “freak” Ben Stokes on Thursday as they battled to get back into the first Test against England at Mount Maunganui.
The honours were even when the New Zealand-born Stokes went to the middle just before tea on day one with England 120-3.
But by stumps, with Stokes in imperious form, the score had doubled and England will resume on Friday on 241-4, with the 28-year-old all-rounder unbeaten on 67.
“He’s a special talent. He’s a bit of a freak at times,” New Zealand short-ball specialist Neil Wagner said after Stokes clubbed his bouncers four times to the boundary.
“Everyone wants to get him out because you know what an important wicket it is ... but that’s my thing, we always try and strive to get the good players out.”
Stokes has tormented New Zealand this year after he played a key role in England’s nail-biting victory on boundary countback in the 50-over World Cup final in July.
As well as dispatching Wagner’s short stuff, he also showed a liking for the fuller delivery when he took four boundaries off successive balls from Trent Boult, including one that burst through the hands of the usually reliable Ross Taylor at first slip.
It was a drop that frustrated the New Zealanders who had earlier seen opener Rory Burns survive three chances including a waist-high edge that went between Taylor and Tom Latham in the slip cordon.
However, Wagner believed that despite England going into day two with six wickets in hand, the game was not out of New Zealand’s control.
“They haven’t got away from us. If we can come in the morning and get a couple of early wickets and put it back on them we’ll be in a really good position. I think we’re happy with where we are at.”
Stokes and Joe Denly (74) put on 83 for the fourth wicket to lift England after they had slowly accumulated runs through the first two sessions against a New Zealand bowling tight lines.
Denly had been locked in a fascinating battle with Wagner where the edges fell short of the cordon, and balls that did beat the bat then missed the stumps.
But Denly refused to be intimidated by the onslaught and smacked five rising deliveries to the fence.
England’s top three played their part in getting a safe start with Surrey pair Rory Burns (52) and Dom Sibley (22) putting on 52 for the first wicket before Burns and Denly added 61 for the second.
Captain Root, however, took 21 balls to get off the mark with a two and then wafted at a wide next delivery from Wagner and was caught behind.
Burns might also have been removed cheaply but a caught behind appeal when he was on 10, and the total 14, was turned down when replays showed he edged the ball.
He gave further chances on 37 and 44 before reaching his half-century and then being removed by Colin de Grandhomme.
While he would like to have gone on, Burns said he was satisfied with England’s start.
“What we were trying to do was set up the game the way we have — establish yourself and try and bat big first innings,” he said, adding that England welcomed the Wagner bombardment.
“It’s quite enjoyable really. He’s a competitor and it’s always a different challenge to someone who is pitching it up, swinging it, and he bowls short stuff more than fuller stuff and it’s always a challenge and it’s a good one to have.”
Wagner finished the day with one for 77 while the most successful New Zealand bowler was de Grandhomme, with his gentle medium pacers drifting away from the batsmen which produced two for 28.
England 1st innings:
R. Burns c Watling b de Grandhomme 52
Sibley c Taylor b de Grandhomme 22
J. Denly c Watling b Southee 74
J. Root c Southee b Wagner 2
B. Stokes not out 67
O. Pope not out 18
Extras: (b1, lb4, nb1) 6
Total: (90 overs) 241-4
Fall of wickets: 1-52 (Sibley), 2-113 (Burns), 3-120 (Root), 4-203 (Denly)
Bowling: Boult 22-6-61-0, Southee 21-6-46-1, de Grandhomme 19-5-28-2 (nb1), Wagner 23-4-77-1, Santner 5-0-24-0