Matt Prior, Stuart Broad and the unlikely figure of Monty Panesar stood doggedly between New Zealand and history on Tuesday, earning England a gripping draw in the third cricket test that ended the three-match level at 0-0.
Prior scored an unbeaten century and, together with perennial No. 11 Panesar, survived the last 3.3 overs on the final day with England nine down to save the match, leaving the tourists 315-9 at stumps and New Zealand one wicket away from victory.
Part-time spinner Kane Williamson claimed England's eighth and ninth wickets within three balls in the fourth-to-last over of the day, bringing out Panesar who survived a late trial to earn England a share of the match and series.
Ian Bell batted six hours for 75 to hold off New Zealand's early attack and Prior finished at 110 not out, his seventh test century in a match in which he also made a half century and took five catches.
Broad played a vital supporting role, batting 137 minutes in a 77-run partnership with Prior to which he contributed 6 after taking 103 minutes and 62 balls to get off the mark.
The defiant last-day batting denied New Zealand the six wickets it needed on the final day for its first series win over England since 1999, and its first at home since 1984.
"New Zealand outplayed us over five days," England captain Alastair Cook said after the match. "Our never say die attitude, we have proved a hard side to beat."
But it was Panesar, phlegmatic, unruffled, perpetually smiling, who played the last, unforgettable role that saved England and denied New Zealand.
Prior made every effort to shield him from the strike, from the threat of Williamson at one end and Trent Boult at the other, as the last three overs of the England innings dragged on.
He survived the first ball he faced from Williamson and took a single, leaving Prior to try to find a single that would allow him the strike for all of the next over, the second-to-last of the innings. But Prior hit the ball too firmly, it ran away for four and Panesar faced Williamson again.
Somehow, he worked a single from the first delivery, handing the strike again to Prior, but Panesar was soon left exposed to Boult and crushed in by New Zealand's surrounding field. He blocked the first ball of the last over, then drew his bat inside the line of the second delivery, wide of off stump.
Panesar found the means to fend the third ball away and it ran through the close-in cordon and he dashed through for the single that allowed Prior — the true hero of the England innings — to defend the last three balls.
"I was backing Monty the whole time," Prior said. "I had to wake him up first. I think he'd been sleeping!
"Monty was good. All our guys have been working so hard in training for that exact moment when you just need that one l little punch down the ground to get off strike. You want to stay relaxed but it's quite tough in a situation like that."
England started the day at 90-4, needing to bat through the last day of the match and series to earn a face-saving draw.
The winning target of 481 — set by New Zealand on the fourth day — was unapproachable and never loomed as a factor for Bell and Prior, who were committed to salvaging the series.
Defeat would have dropped England to No. 3 behind South Africa and India in the test rankings, but it avoided that and now prepares for a home series against New Zealand ahead of the Ashes showdown with Australia starting in July.
"At no stage did we underestimate New Zealand," Cook said. "We did not play as well as we would have liked, but that takes nothing away from New Zealand, who put us under huge pressure."
New Zealand's bowlers gained only one wicket in the first session — Joe Root for 29, who was dismissed with the first delivery bowled with the second new ball.
They then had to sweat through the second session, with only Jonny Bairstow's early wicket to fan their hopes, until Bell was out after supporting England's defensive battle for 354 minutes.
New Zealand went into the final session needing three wickets for victory. Captain Brendon McCullum, reduced to a painful hobble after tearing a hamstring, marshaled his field and his bowlers with care and insight, probing for any chink in England's armor, but he found none.
Prior stood immoveable against all of his wiles and Broad, ringed by fielders within touching distance throughout the final session, was sorely tested but stood firm in the best traditions of English cricket.
"I'm incredibly proud of the boys," McCullum said. "We have absorbed pressure and put it on a very good England side.
"We pretty much tried everything, we came up against some of the best players in the world," he added. "We gave it everything, wonderful test and series."
England also rode its luck.
Both Bell and Bairstow were dropped in the slip-gully cordon in the final over before lunch: Bell when he was 40 and Bairstow on 6, shaking New Zealand's resolve on a day on which it needed every chance to be held.
Prior successfully appealed against an lbw decision when he was on 16 and England was 189-6, then skied an attempted hook off Tim Southee when he was on 20 and watched as Neil Wagner flung himself and got his fingertips to the ball but couldn't hold the catch.
Prior's most astonishing reprieve came just after drinks when he was 23 and England was 207-6. Wagner surprised him with a bouncer which reared sharply. Prior swayed back and thrust his bat at the ball. The delivery struck his bat, cannoned onto his helmet, dropped onto the shoulder and then fell heavily onto his stumps. Remarkably, the bails were not dislodged and Prior and England survived.
Broad was then also reprieved by the video umpire after being adjudged lbw to Trent Boult when he was 0 and England 259-7.