I’m flummoxed. How on earth does one summarise that? Should I go for the default reaction – that it was one of the best Test matches of all time and therefore the result doesn’t really matter – or should I point out that results, do, in fact, matter quite a lot?
I understand the former argument, of course. Maybe we should simply feel grateful for playing our part in a humdinger? However, there’s an equally legitimate perspective that, actually, the team should be gutted for losing a game they really should have put out of New Zealand’s reach on two separate occasions.
Let’s look back at similarly memorable sporting contests to work out how we, as supporters, should feel…
In the famous semi-final of Italia 90, we played better than Germany, were incredibly unlucky to concede an all-important goal that deflected off Paul Parker’s arse, and then we ultimately lost on penalties. I don’t remember feeling happy that my team had been involved in a classic contest. I was depressed for days. Ditto the repeat in Euro 96.
Then there was New Zealand’s agonising loss against, you guessed it, England in the 2019 cricket World Cup final. The Kiwis played incredibly well and were insanely unlucky to lose. No amount of sympathy, or plaudits for playing their part, compensated for what was a heart-breaking loss on the biggest stage of all.
So how should we, as England cricket supporters, be feeling after this remarkable game in Wellington?
The first thing to say is that context absolutely matters here. The stakes weren’t as high. What’s more, Ben Stokes and the lads have enjoyed a fantastic winter. We’ve played some exhilarating cricket and one loss, by literally the smallest margin, is no reason to despair or doubt the team’s general approach. We all knew that Bazball wouldn’t work every time. And I still think it’s a good strategy because it plays to our strengths and it’s a good way for a less than perfect team to win more games than they lose.
However – and it’s a significant, however – I don’t want to gloss over the fact that England’s performance in this game was a bit, well, casual in my opinion. I also thought that our batting performance on the second morning showed a certain degree of hubris. I don’t like using the word ‘hubris’ because it’s such an ugly word. However, this is how it came across to me.
The decision to enforce the follow on was also a questionable one. Being aggressive is fine; but it is possible to be overly aggressive. Is Bazball too instinctive, too macho, or, dare I say it, too inflexible, to be smart?
There’s a sketch in The Matrix when Agent Smith mocks the heroic, but not particularly erudite, Neo for “using all the muscles except the most important one”. That’s basically how I feel about this loss in Wellington. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a positive approach that takes the game to the opposition. But sometimes you have to read the game a little better.
Let’s rewind to that second morning. England soon reached 323-3 with both Root and Brook at the crease with unbeaten centuries to their name. But what should have been a platform for a huge total was squandered recklessly and for no particular purpose. Firstly, Brook hit one back to the bowler carelessly without first getting accustomed to the early morning conditions. Next, Stokes hacked one in the air like a farmer flailing at tall grass with a scythe. Then Foakes charged down the wicket, again without playing himself in, and promptly got stumped. And before we knew it, England had lost their last 7 wickets for 100 runs in the blink of an eye.
Personally, I don’t think this mini-session was critiqued enough at the time. Most pundits shrugged their shoulders and justified what was basically brainless slogging (and the sacrifice of what should have become an impregnable position), by arguing that England were setting up a declaration. But why was there any need to set up a declaration on just the second morning of a 5-day contest?
Declarations are traditionally made when time is an issue in the game. Yet there were 11 sessions left! And whilst I understand that England fancied bowling in what were helpful conditions, this wasn’t a day/night Test situation when conditions often overwhelmingly favour the bowlers for a specific hour or so. The conditions, in actual fact, assisted the bowlers throughout the day. Indeed, there was still some assistance for the bowlers on day 5 – as England discovered.
Consequently, I did not understand England’s thinking at all. I would’ve preferred us to bat normally (positively but not recklessly) and try to score 500+. Instead, I got the feeling that England hubristically thought they had enough runs already, and that a score of 400 would easily be enough. After all, they’re reinventing Test cricket and can win from anywhere, even if it means a tricky 4th innings chase now and again… or so they thought.
I also believe that England’s approach on the second morning betrayed the fact that that were trying to win quickly – as if that would prove something – rather than simply trying to win. If so, this was slightly cocky and possibly, maybe, a little disrespectful to both the opposition and the format. And, in the end, it kicked them in the nuts.
Now let’s look at the somewhat controversial decision to enforce the follow on. Again, the follow on is normally used to force a win when time is of the essence. And, once again, there was plenty of time at Stokes’s disposal. So what was the rationale here? Although New Zealand batted very well – world class batters like Kane Williamson are allowed to do that – did it never cross Stokes’s mind that Williamson might, you know, do Kane Williamson things?
Once again, I got the impression that England were trying to win as quickly and impressively as possible rather than merely trying to win. And, as a result, the game kicked them in the nuts again. Their bowling attack, which consisted of a 40-year-old, a 36-year-old, another seamer not exactly known for his fitness, plus a fourth seamer with a bad knee, was forced to spend a whopping 215 consecutive overs in the field. Does positive thinking preclude considering this eventuality?
The modern practice, of course, especially in these days of back-to-back Tests, is to decline the follow on, bat the opposition out of the game, give the bowlers some rest, and then hit your weary opponent hard in the 4th innings. However, Stokes and McCullum decided to buck the trend, presumably in the name of positivity, and gave New Zealand a small glimmer (their only possible glimmer) of opportunity to save the series. Basically, England were using all their muscles, except the most important one, all over again.
So where does this slight setback leave us? Fortunately, it changes little in the scheme of things. The issues I’ve raised above are just minor quibbles, offered simply because a short blog praising England’s winter in general, while celebrating our participation in one of the best Test matches of all time, would seem a tad trite. And it wouldn’t be very interesting to read, either.
What’s more, although I’m proud of how England have played in recent months – how different things feel now that Harrison and Graves have moved on and it’s easier to get behind English cricket in general – I’m slightly annoyed that we’ve just become only the fourth side in history to lose after enforcing the follow on (especially as it was so avoidable).
Therefore, I’ll leave you with one final thought…
Would everyone be so willing to accept this loss if it had cost us the Ashes? At the end of the day, nobody really minds losing to New Zealand by one run. They’re everyone’s second favourite team and Kane Williamson is one of everyone’s favourite players.
But imagine if it had been Australia that we’d let off the hook, and it was Steve Smith and David Warner celebrating a miraculous win at the end. Somehow, I don’t think England supporters would be quite so forgiving – no matter how good the spectacle was for the game of Test cricket in general.
To your point I posted this in The Times earlier today:
“What another great test match going down to the wire, thoroughly entertaining and full of suspense. I thought we were in for a tie!
Having said that and fully recognising that hindsight is 20/20 I do feel Stokes missed a couple of tricks. We always complain when the follow-on is not enforced but this was probably not the right time to do it! Stokes knew he was a bowler short with his bad knee so getting a rapid hundred or hundred and fifty, making NZ bat last and giving the bowlers more rest would have probably worked better.
Having not done that and ending up chasing 257 he could have retired hurt when his knee gave way badly trying to play a shot off the back foot and he became unable to run hard. Foakes batting with Root at that point – I believe about another fifty required – would have allowed Root to do what he does best; find the gaps and run more twos and threes, keeping the scoreboard moving well.
No complaints though, great to watch played in an excellent competitive spirit to the very end; kudos to NZ for sticking at it when it seemed they had lost their chance. What a series of wonderful, close cricket competition we have watched by these two teams over the last few years. Keep it coming please!”
“We always complain when the follow-on is not enforced but this was probably not the right time to do it! Stokes knew he was a bowler short”.
Yep. Nail on the head. Personally, I think we got over-confident. The decision made no sense but we just assumed that we’d win anyway imho.
Let’s not limit the list of English complaints to not enforcing the follow-on.
Wow, you posted it in The Times!?
Bazball is a state of mind for me. It’s looking to dominate from the word go by primarily utilising the white ball skills that have been honed by players over recent years, especially the batsmen and with which they’re largely more comfortable than traditional test graft. It may appear gung-ho at times but if you have faith in its ability to produce results you don’t relax the approach depending on the state if the game. It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but a 1 run defeat is hardly blowing up in your face and it’s got people talking about test cricket again.
Personally I’m always dubious about enforcing the follow on as you condemn your batsmen to day 5 pitches, few sides seeming to fold twice. The Kiwis would never have scored 483 batting last. However Stokes did say it was an experiment to see how things might own out under similar circumstances in the Ashes. Whether this was bluster I don’t know, but it illustrates the confidence in the camp at the moment and with the likes of Wood, Archer and Stone on the sidelines there’s certainly firepower to burn.
The only issue for me at the moment, other than Stoke’s fitness to play as an all rounder is Crawley, who consistently looks vulnerable and with Bairstow in the wings more middle order juggling may be required to manufacture a replacement, as let’s face it the likes of Hameed and Sibley don’t fit the mindset.
I’m not too bothered about this defeat. As you’ve identified the first innings collapse was reckless and the follow-on was silly. I’ve long felt that against any decent side, you shouldn’t enforce unless your lead is 300+. People often forget Vaughan nearly threw away the 2005 Ashes with his follow-on at Trent Bridge. Another 20 runs and Warne would have cleaned England up. But ultimately, I don’t think it will affect England or their approach. I don’t think Stokes would have enforced the follow-on if it had been an Ashes Test, either.
I’m much more concerned about England’s batting for the Ashes though. Crawley just doesn’t seem good enough, Pope still looks a vulnerable number 3 and I can imagine Duckett getting worked over by Cummins and co and having a nightmare series. With luck Bairstow will be fit but whether he’ll be able to recapture his most recent form is another matter altogether, and I sincerely hope they don’t drop Foakes, who has been excellent, in order to accommodate him and expect him to keep wicket, too. That sounds like a recipe for disaster after a serious leg injury. It’s hard to imagine England disrupting Root, Brook and Stokes at 4, 5 and 6, which really only leaves an opener slot for Bairstow, a role he’s performed successfully in ODIs and T20 but never filled at Test level. That could easily become messy, too.
The other issue is Stokes’s knee. It looks increasingly as though he won’t be able to bowl this summer, and that he could break down at any point. That really upsets the balance of the side and ultimately means tired seamers.
These are the issues that are worrying me, rather than this careless and hubristic narrow defeat.
You’re not too bothered?
It was the difference between winning a series and not winning it.
But England are now so formidable that winning series vs not winning them is not even a concern?
You guys lost a series to the West Indies less than a year ago. Or has that all been memory-holed? I reckon you should be pretty keen to bank series wins, especially on the road, when they’re there for the taking.
What is this nonsensical self-satisfaction?
When Brook was run out without facing, I gave us no chance and went to bed, so was surprised by how close it was when I heard the score this morning.
A diehard England fan.
Interesting article and comments. For me, though it would be absurd to deny what England have achieved in the last twelve months, something has been lost,and it’s the wonderful variety test cricket offers. I’ve also always loved cricket as a tactical as well as physical contest. Now there seems to be only one tactic, all out attack. It’s a bit like watching a football team who have decided to shoot as soon as they get the ball. There would be some spectacular goals, but we’d never see a fifteen pass move again.
If Australia set us 650 in five sessions next summer -it’s happened before- are we going to play the same way, or is someone going to find their inner Mike Atherton? In the end, it’s the lack of intelligence, indicated by some posts already, that I find gets under my skin. No 11 comes in with a batter going at the other end and gets out trying to hit his first ball. If we’ve evolved a form of cricket where that isn’t stupid then it isn’t cricket at all.
It was simply a reckless decision from Stokes not to enforce the follow-on knowing that he may not have been able to contribute as a bowler. That put too much pressure on the other bowlers as you have rightly pointed out. Fun cricket it may have been but this was highly avoidable.
I really get where this article is coming from. But at the same time I’m trying to fight the sense of (slight) disappointment in the result. Firstly, because it was an amazing game overall and there was a ton of drama to enjoy. Plus it was New Zealand etc. But I’m also trying to accept it as being part of how England play now.
In the last 9 months or so this England team has been operating on a level that I can hardly understand. For context I was one of those people that defended Joe Root’s England not chasing a sporting declaration vs NZ in 2021. I thought Gary Kirsten would be the right person to whip England into shape. And I thought captaincy would be too much of a burden for Stokes. My instincts are obviously very risk-averse. And seeing England doing what they’ve been doing has completely up ended all that.
Many times in the last 12 Test matches I’ve felt England have been reckless or careless and yet they’ve won 10 including from some absolutely staggering positions (Trent Bridge, Edgbaston, Rawalpindi). It feels like those wins just don’t happen without a fundamental change in mindset and accessing a fearlessness I’ve never seen before (or can understand).
There was definitely a more sensible way through this match and maybe this defeat will serve a small corrective. But I feel like Stokes and McCullum have built up much credit in the bank I’m willing to trust their instincts for a while yet.
A couple of thoughts about if this was vs Australia – I also wonder if they would make those same choices vs Australia. But then again, to win big games maybe teams need to avoid the instinct to curb their instincts – e.g. could Stokes have played that Headingley innings without that fearlessness? More broadly what would it be like losing side of an entertaining Ashes series. Instinctively I would say I’d rather win a boring Ashes 3-0 rather than be the equivalent of Australia in 2005. But that probably says more about me. And this team makes me wonder if that’s the right mindset…
Great comment, Stephen. Thanks. You sound as conflicted as me! And maybe it’s ok to have mixed feelings rather than being either happy or mad.
Thought England had this one in the bag as much as you gents. Definitely a hard defeat and series draw to swallow. Promising signs are there though for England. The Ashes will be a good watch and a true test of the Bazball philosophy.
I guess it depends whether you’re supporting England this week.
If you are supporting England this week, you should be annoyed that England were in a position to win a series but came unstuck in the last hour.
Unless your expectations aren’t that high. Maybe drawing against NZ is good enough?
Agree up to a point. But in that Headingley match Stokes built his knock incredibly cautiously, playing more than half of his deliveries in a style that seems forbidden now. And he was right.
Why is the disappointment “slight”?
England were in a position to win a series on the road but fell agonisingly short. England were denied.
Are you guys so high on your own supply that you’re not that fussed about whether you win a series or not?
How many Tests have England won in a row?
I’m in disagreement with most of the discussion here. Declaration, follow on, etc. weren’t the decisive elements IMO. The Kiwis were down and out without a straw to grasp until Joe flushed our best bat down the loo and opened the door. It was in the bag. I love Joe. I love everything about him. He’s my favorite player after Botham. But that was not only the worst cock-up of his career, it was the worst I can remember personally.
That’s where the match was lost. Brook would have put them to the sword toute suite and everybody knew it.
A shocking brainfart from a truly great cricketer.
Well you are not wrong about Joe but even the best have brainfarts and one has to assume they may happen and tactically accommodate some wiggle room to accommodate for their eventuality.
One of the things to me that makes cricket so fascinating is that it’s unpredictable. It’s very easy to say here, well if Stokes hadn’t declared this would have happened or that would have happened. It rarely does though does it. For instance despite Bothams great Headingley knock Australia still only needed 120 odd, so who would have thought that Willis would bowl such a devastating spell?
You could painstackingly analyse every day but what happened here was that circumstances conspired to create one of the greatest Tests of all time in my book. Crickets the winner, nobody lost.
Nobody lost? What a load of rubbish.
It’s a contest. NZ won. England lost.
The result also prevented England from winning the series.
Who are you guys trying to fool?
One big difference about the follow-on in days gone by was that matches had rest days.
Now England don’t even have a rest day between series! Looks very like vultures trying to milk a corpse to me….
Captain Fragile supports England again.
Really appreciate your help in taking 🙏 and the rest of the process and leave the rest to you in the next few hours as I will have a lot to talk 👄 I will also need 😊 for the course and I have been working with my team for a few hours 😀 the last one 😀 the first one was the last thing I did with it and leave 😀
Just let Stokes and the boys get on with it……..10 wins out of 12 is pretty good.
We would’ve won if Brook had stayed for an hour – but it wasn’t to be.
Tell you what though, it show the importance of chasing every ball and not giving away NBs and wides.
Enforcing the follow on used to be the norm but that all changed with the abolition of rest days. With matches starting on Thursday, the follow on decision usually had to be made on a Saturday when bowlers knew they were having a day off on Sunday. .
In reaching his decision, I don’t think Stokes took into account how his main strike bowlers were feeling, plus the fact he too could have done with a rest. I doubt that Brearley or Vaughan would have declared. Cook certainly wouldn’t.
Sorry, enforced the follow on, not declared