I had this article written in my head as the Test Match progressed. “Bazball faces its first setback” was the working title. I was going to talk about how this new England still needed improvement to compete against the truly great Test teams as India moved seemingly unstoppably towards victory in this oddly rearranged match.
However, this England team continue to defy the expectations of those of us who are waiting for the bubble to burst. This isn’t supposed to be how you play Test cricket. For 130 years we have been told this approach does not work. All the received wisdoms of how to play the game are being thrown out the window. WG Grace’s famous saying “9 times out of 10 when I win the toss I bat first, the 10th time I think about it and then bat first” was the first one to go. Upon calling correctly at Edgbaston Ben Stokes announced “We like chasing” before inserting India on a relatively flat pitch. That is how you approach one- day cricket, it isn’t how you win Test matches against high quality opposition. But chase England did, and what a chase it was! 378, the highest 4th innings chase at Edgbaston and the highest in English Test history.
Even Geoffrey Boycott penned a column entitled “I don’t like how England are playing Test cricket at the moment, I love it!” This is the same Geoffrey Boycott who, upon watching England rack up 408 all out on the first day of the great Edgbaston Test of 2005, walked up to Michael Vaughan in the car park and told him “You won’t win many Test matches playing like that!” The thing is England are winning Test matches and they are winning them by playing even more attacking cricket than even the boys of 2005 or, arguably, any side that has ever played the game. Steve Waugh’s declared aim was for Australia to score at 4 an over in Test cricket, a revolutionary idea at the time. Stokes and McCullum’s England are regularly scoring at 5 an over.
This week was the litmus Test, however. Those of us who have watched the game for long enough to witness it’s soaring heights and crushing lows were all saying the same thing. Yes, this new free scoring approach was all well and good against New Zealand but they are a team, albeit a good one, seemingly on the decline. They were also missing a bowler at Trent Bridge and selected the wrong side at Headingley. It wouldn’t be successful against India, not against bowlers who learnt their trade in the IPL and all the tricks up their sleeve to combat this sort of batting. It wouldn’t work against Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami and besides, anything England could do Rishabh Pant could do better, which he almost did.
Yet again, though, this new England confounded expectations. It seems there is no position from which they don’t believe they can win. 132 behind on first innings, they seemed completely out of the game once India reached stumps on day 3 with a lead of 257 and 7 wickets still in hand. Indeed, almost every England team of the past would have been.
This is all before we get on to the performances of two of Yorkshire’s finest, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow. Root’s brilliance has become almost routine, just like another Lionel Messi hat trick, we regard it as almost to be expected, so much so as to fail to appreciate it’s genius. Bairstow’s revival on the other hand is something extraordinary. In terms of a cricketing transformation only Mitchell Johnson morphing from a scattergun bowler who fully earned the Barmy Army’s enduring ditty about him into the fearsome heir to Lilley and Thomson in 2013/14 comes close to what the Yorkshireman has achieved in recent months. To put his performances into context Bairstow had achieved only 5 hundreds in his first 78 Tests. He now has 4 in his last 5 innings.
Of course, it is worth pointing out that his purple patch showed signs of beginning before the McCullum/ Stokes axis took charge. His superb hundred in Sydney during the winter’s Ashes series was followed by another on the more benign pitches of the Caribbean in March. Even then, though, we did not witness the almost infallible batting that we have seen in recent weeks. Almost every time the Yorkshireman strides to the crease at the moment, a century seems almost inevitable.
The turnaround is staggering. Perhaps he just needed someone to believe in him. For that is the greatest thing that Stokes and McCullum have brought to English cricket and that is the removal of the fear of failure. English cricket has been paralysed by that for far too long. Too many players just needed to remember why they play this wonderful game.
It is a joy watching England play cricket at the moment and those are not words any of us have written for a long time. The country is in a recession, the 24 hour news tickers on our TV’s display relentlessly depressing updates and the national football team is demonstrating all the verve and flair of a wet Tuesday afternoon at the DMV. But for a few long glorious summer days we have been able to forget all our troubles and watch a group of cricketers play international sport the way it was meant to be played, with the joy and enthusiasm of young men who can’t believe their luck that they get to do this for a living.
When Ben Stokes first led England on to the field this summer, he said that he wanted the players to “enjoy playing for England.” They clearly are Ben. In fact, we all are.