England lost one of the tightest finishes in Test history, downed by a solitary run in Wellington as New Zealand became just the fourth side ever to win a game after following on.
Last man James Anderson, who has never hit the winning runs in 179 appearances, was one swing of the bat away from sealing an unforgettable result for his side but when he was caught down the leg side from the faintest of edges off Neil Wagner, a thrilling contest came to a crushing conclusion for the tourists.
They had been bowled out for 256 pursuing a target of 258, having twice taken apparent control of the chase during partnerships between Joe Root and Ben Stokes then Ben Foakes and Jack Leach.
Only once before in 146 years of Test cricket has a game been settled by a single run – the West Indies beating Australia in 1993 – making this an even more agonising finish than England’s famous two-run triumph at Edgbaston in the 2005 Ashes.
Remarkably, there is even an argument that this could have gone down as only the third ever tied Test with the penultimate ball of the match from Wagner perilously close to a wide.
In the end defeat was a particularly chastening result given England captain Ben Stokes’ decision to make the Kiwis bat again on the third morning at Basin Reserve with a hulking 226-run lead in the bank. Only three teams have tasted loss after sending the opposition back in – the Australian classes of 1894, 1981 and 2001.
But Stokes and head coach Brendon McCullum still boast a remarkable record of success since taking charge last summer, with 10 wins from 12 after this setback. And, measured against their own aim of revitalising interest in the longest format, this was another box emphatically ticked.
For the Black Caps, who squared the series 1-1 and kept a six-year undefeated streak at home alive by the skin of their teeth, the hero was 36-year-old seamer Wagner. He took four for 62, including Stokes and Root (95) in the space of four game-changing deliveries and also held a nerveless catch at fine-leg to dismiss the impressive Foakes with only seven needed.
It was fitting that he claimed the final wicket, sliding one into Anderson’s body and brushing the bat on the way through, but he will surely count himself lucky that his previous delivery was not called wide by umpire Chris Gaffaney.
Resuming on 48 for one, the seeds of England’s troubles were sown in a sloppy first hour during which they slumped to 80 for six. Nightwatchman Ollie Robinson lasted only three overs, opener Ben Duckett flashed to slip with his feet in concrete and Ollie Pope was wholly unconvincing before edging a cut.
But most costly was the loss of in-form Harry Brook, who walked to the crease with a batting average north of 100 and four centuries in his previous five Tests. One of those was his career-best 186 from the first innings, made during a 302-run stand with Root.
This time, their made in Yorkshire partnership ended in desperate fashion, Brook run out without even facing a ball as Root set off for a single that was never on. He sprinted off after dabbing to third slip, leaving Brook high and dry as the throw came in from Michael Bracewell.
Root went a long way to making amends, backing up 153 not out with an excellent 95 and dragging the game away from New Zealand as he and a battling Stokes added 121 for the sixth wicket.
But the set pair, England’s classiest player and their clutch finisher, both fell into Wagner’s well-known short-ball tactics. Stokes, who was in visible pain due to the left-knee problem that restricted him to just two overs in the match, lost both his balance and his bottom hand as he popped up an easy catch on 33.
Moments later Root gave up the chance to score twin hundreds for the first time in his career when he swivelled a pull straight to midwicket.
There were 43 still needed when Stuart Broad was eighth man down and Foakes came so close to playing a match-winning hand. With Leach reprising the sidekick role he made famous at Headingley in 2019, Foakes painstakingly chipped away at the target to make a measured 33.
Only seven more were left to get when he hooked Tim Southee round the corner, with Wagner’s hands not letting him down. Anderson emerged at number 11 and thrilled the travelling England fans when he middled Wagner for four through midwicket.
One more of those would have sealed a memorable win, but when he brushed Wagner through to Tom Blundell he stood distraught in the middle and declined to go through the motions of a DRS review.
New Zealand formed a joyous victory circle having pulled off a remarkable comeback win, built around their 483-run second-innings rearguard, as England pondered their part in proceedings.
Declining the follow-on would surely have seen them bat the Black Caps out of the game, and guarantee a series win, but it would have been impossible to conceive such a dazzling finale.