When Alastair Cook and Adam Lyth began the hosts’ second innings on day four, it was on a highly improbable mission to rewrite Test cricket history in pursuit of 455 to pull off a new all-time highest run chase.
After almost two full sessions of rain, instead of another 158 overs in which to turn 44 without loss into a distant victory, they need only stretch out their 10 wickets for three sessions to draw the match – and win the Investec series 1-0.
After the hectic happenings here and at Lord’s in back-to-back Tests, England therefore have it within their grasp to begin their Ashes summer with a heartening success.
The notion that they could still press for 2-0 ought not to persist long into Tuesday.
A required rate of little more than four an over in a maximum 98 would not be out of keeping at all with the tempo set by their opponents over the last two weeks, and occasionally themselves.
But the risk-reward ratio favours conservatism, however outrageously Cook’s ultra-adventurous opposite number Brendon McCullum chooses to dangle the carrot.
In the circumstances, with a forecast long suggesting a significant proportion of remaining playing time would be spirited away, McCullum might have reason to reproach himself for delaying his declaration until England’s task – approaching lunch on day four – extended by 37 runs the most ever made to win in the fourth innings in almost 140 years of Test cricket.
Cook and Lyth comfortably negotiated 13 overs before light early-afternoon rain moved in and never relented to allow any prospect of further play.
On an increasingly cloudy morning, BJ Watling had quickly added 20 to his overnight 100 – enough to ensure already the Kiwis could set the agenda for the final two days of the series.
Watling and Mark Craig (58no) began day four by taking their seventh-wicket stand to 53 before the innings linchpin fell to the second new ball.
James Anderson’s second delivery with it bounced awkwardly from short of a length to find the edge, and Joe Root’s neat catch away to his right at third slip completed the dismissal.
Watling had by then, however, hit 15 fours from 163 balls to put all the pressure on England to protect their series advantage.
True to McCullum’s ethos, New Zealand needed only 16 overs to add another 116 for the loss of two wickets.
Tim Southee and Craig continued the rush of boundaries to top 400.
One especially dismissive blow for six over long-on by Southee came in a Stuart Broad over which cost 20 runs and brought up the fifth half-century stand of the innings.
It also took the target into world record territory, and England retreated deep into run-saving mode with a ball less than 10 overs old.
Craig completed his 72-ball 50 and then, from number eight, took his match aggregate to 99 without being dismissed.
Southee fell short with another attempted big hit, caught at long-on off Moeen Ali, but number 10 Matt Henry clubbed his second and fourth deliveries from Broad over square-leg for six.
That was enough for McCullum to call time.
After several hours of subsequent rain, he was perhaps wishing he had done so a little sooner.