Bairstow’s 73 from 41 balls had given England a flying start, but the Black Caps’ spinners fought back superbly to limit the home side to 175 for eight, Mitchell Santner taking three wickets including that of the opener.
The tourists had been outplayed in the first two T20s but kept their series hopes alive with a comprehensive win at Edgbaston on Sunday and secured a 2-2 draw as forties from Tim Seifert, Glenn Phillips and Mark Chapman led a successful chase with almost three overs to spare, despite teenager Rehan Ahmed taking two wickets in his first England appearance on home soil.
Bairstow had been due to keep wicket, with captain Jos Buttler attempting to rest himself for the series finale, but had to hand back the gloves after experiencing pain in his right shoulder while batting, England taking no chances with a player who looks in fine fettle heading into next month’s World Cup defence.
This was Bairstow’s first innings at Nottingham since his remarkable 136 in the Test victory over the same opposition here last summer and he picked up where he had left off, jabbing Matt Henry for a flat six as part of an early assault on the short leg-side boundary. That was one of half-a-dozen maximums, to go with five fours, and when England’s fifty came up midway through the fifth over, the opener had 43 of them himself.
As in Manchester last week, Bairstow looked to have every chance of joining an elite club of English three-format centurions, but where a lack of strike had been his enemy there, here it was temptation, the 33-year-old caught on the fence by Daryll Mitchell attempting to launch Santner into the stand for a second ball in succession.
With his premature exit, Bairstow at least cleared the stage for a narrative-sodden partnership between Harry Brook and Dawid Malan. Ahead of this game, head coach Matthew Mott had given the clearest indication yet that the World Cup door remains ajar for Brook, stressing the ‘provisional’ element of England’s 15-man squad rather more than selector Luke Wright had when announcing it last month.
Malan has been the player under most pressure as a result, having followed a four-ball duck at Old Trafford on Friday night with a turgid two off 11 in a chase of more than 200 at Edgbaston.
For a brief while, it looked as if his innings here might turn, in timely fashion, into one of the late pay-off variety that justifies such dawdling starts. Brook’s arrival at the other end had given Malan the hurry-up as he moved from ten to 24 in the space of six balls, including three boundaries off one particularly expensive over from Kyle Jamieson.
Two overs later, though, he was on his way, caught in the deep by the tall quick, who did well having initially lost the ball in the setting sun. The consolation was that by then Brook had departed, too, for an uncharacteristically quiet four off eight balls (the kind of innings for which Malan might be crucified), but his own score of 26 from 21 will do little to quiet the debate heading into the ODI leg, which begins with a full-strength England squad on Friday.
Not until Liam Livingstone drilled Matt Henry’s final delivery straight to a fielder did New Zealand’s seamers claim their first wicket of the night, at a collective cost of 105 runs, but their trio of spinners had kept England in check, with combined figures of six for 68.
That bode well for England’s decision to bring Ahmed into the side, when Ben Duckett might have been the more obvious rotation, and sure enough, with New Zealand having charged to 73 for one by the end of the powerplay, the teenager’s introduction brought a much-needed breakthrough.
In fairness, his contribution was the simpler half of a terrific run-out instigated by Luke Wood, who collected on the run and torpedo’d through the air in a figure-skater’s twirl before arrowing in from the boundary to leave Mitchell short of his ground.
Both he and Seifert had been elevated in the absence of the rested Devon Conway, but the first ball of Ahmed’s second over spelled the end for the stand-in opener, a tame chip back to the bowler bringing an underwhelming end to a fine innings of 48 from 32 and offering England brief hope.
Phillips, though, the tourists’ most consistently destructive performer throughout the series, continued the attack against all three England spinners, Ahmed drilled through extra-cover to take the reply beyond three figures, while Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid were each launched for monstrous sixes over the leg-side.
A huge top-edge off Brydon Carse took the target to an even 50 and it was down below a run-a-ball by the time Ahmed struck again to end Phillips’ stay, the damage done as Rachin Ravindra struck the winning runs with 16 balls to spare.