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.