Rejoice! All is well and those doubting over the last two years have been firmly put in their place. You were told and you didn’t listen, so now you get roundly abused for your negative attitude, and deservedly so. Right?
Make no mistake, this was a fine win, in a genuinely wonderful Test match. England produced a wonderful display on the last two days in particular, so surely even the most critical England fan should be pleased with that? Well yes, actually, they should. There is a lot to like about the players coming through in this England side and if this is how England are going to play, then there may yet be a chance of recovering some of the ground that the ECB have so needlessly thrown away. Suggesting that anyone being critical should shut up now misses the point of the issues raised, because many of them haven’t been so much as acknowledged, let alone addressed. But if it is a first step, then that would be something for everyone to be pleased about.
The captain undoubtedly had a fine game here. His second innings century was an excellent knock, not just in terms of scoring the runs he did, but in the manner he did so. Somewhat belatedly, Sky decided to focus on his technique, rather curious in some ways to do so after he’s put it right having ignored it mostly when it was wrong. He was indeed much more upright, with his head over the ball and aligned well with his front foot. As a result both his judgement outside off stump was much improved, and he was playing much straighter to the ball aimed at the stumps – his punching of the ball through midwicket and mid on were evidence of that, where previously he had been across the ball due to his balance taking his weight outside off stump. Cook is never going to be a pretty player, but that’s irrelevant, as others can do that job. His concentration is indeed one of his prime assets, but in order to make the most of that, he has to stay in. The point about bowlers having found him out by pitching the ball up at him was always overplayed, because no side can maintain that degree of discipline endlessly if a player gets in – if the game was that easy it would have been worked out a century ago. Eventually they will bowl balls for him to cash in on.
A Cook in form does change the proposition as far as England are concerned. Australia’s bowlers wouldn’t have been concerned watching his hundred in the West Indies. They will be a little more concerned watching his hundred at Lords.
As captain Cook also did little wrong. England being bowled out this morning was probably the best thing that could have happened, removing the possibility of batting on too long. But Cook rotated his bowlers well, and tried different things. He came in for a fair degree of stick in commentary for having a third man in place when New Zealand were 2-2, but Cook is always going to be somewhat stifled by his existing plans and reluctant to change. He is never going to be a McCullum or Clarke, and given who he is, today he did well.
So no more criticism of him then surely? Not quite. That he did well today as captain doesn’t undo the last two years. But equally there should be no refusal to offer up credit where it is due. The likely appointment of Trevor Bayliss will place the onus on Cook to run the side on the field, as Bayliss has the reputation for wanting to operate behind the scenes rather than dictating tactics. That is as it should be, and maybe Cook will flower late as captain. Yet he should not be given a free pass on the basis of a single Test, and crowing because of it is unseemly. Credit where it is due and criticism where that is due is entirely reasonable. This time, it’s credit.
Ben Stokes will of course receive all the plaudits and rightly so. His second innings century will live long in the memory. His style is simple and uncomplicated, and although that is often damnation with faint praise, it really shouldn’t be. He plays straight, has few quirks, and of course that wonderful power. English cricket probably does need a hero; given the concerns about cricket becoming a niche sport, it’s essential someone grabs the attention of the public. If only more had the chance to see him.
Despite his second innings heroics, it was his first innings 92 that was perhaps the more important. Coming in at 30-4 the game was more or less over right there had he gone cheaply. Although New Zealand surpassed England’s total comfortably, Stokes, Buttler and Ali ensured England were in the game. From where they were, that was more than could have been expected.
In keeping with being the golden boy, he of course had a say with the ball. There is something about these kinds of players that they do this sort of thing. He has shown that he has talent, and in this match he was perhaps the difference. A word of warning though, Stokes is combative, fiery and awkward. Recent history suggests England struggle to manage such free spirits, while there is every chance he will be castigated for throwing his wicket away when it goes wrong in similar circumstances. If we want the glory of it coming off, we have to accept that the price of that is that sometimes he will fail, and it won’t look pretty. It’s probably too much to hope that he will be granted latitude over that – no one else ever has been. And that’s frustrating, because just letting him go is probably how England will get the most out of him. Some players need that freedom, something that so many forgot when slating He Who Must Not Be Mentioned.
Moeen Ali is another who will look back on the match with pleasure. 4-129 on a surface that was friendlier to seam and (especially) swing was a decent return, and when added to over a hundred runs from the bat from number eight, his has fulfilled two roles in the side. He has done little wrong in his career thus far.
Broad too bowled well overall. It shouldn’t be forgotten that not for the first time he and Anderson bowled too short in the first innings, though they did correct it. It remains absolutely mystifying that this happens so often, when they are so much more successful when they pitch it up. Anderson himself had a relatively quiet Test, but ironically this is no bad thing. England were looking far too reliant on him for this summer. For others to do the legwork for once was overdue.
Mark Wood had a wonderful debut. He bowled with pace, skill, clearly thinks about his bowling judging by how willing he was to use the crease to vary his point of attack, and perhaps above all looked like he was having the time of his life. When he scored his first Test run he broke into a beaming smile, and on several occasions in the field he betrayed a mischievous sense of humour. England for the last few years have appeared the most joyless, miserable, bad tempered team in world cricket. The simple matter of a player plainly having the time of his life was utterly wonderful to see. Don’t change him.
From a cricketing point of view, a single Test is hardly a sufficient sample size to form a judgement on him, but his presence did make the England attack look properly balanced for the first time since the 2010/11 Ashes. The additional pace he brought was slightly reminiscent of seeing Simon Jones a decade ago. Again, there’s no need to pile the pressure on him, but there’s enough there to suggest he might do well in future.
The other debutant Adam Lyth did less well of course. It really should be written off as irrelevant. It’s a single game, and he has played little in the last month. England set him back by not selecting him in the Caribbean. There’s little more to be said about him except to wish him luck at Headingley.
Ian Bell had a poor game all round. He could do with a few runs soon, because England can’t keep losing early wickets and expect to get out of the hole. He did get a couple of very fine deliveries, so for this game it’s a matter of shrugging the shoulders and saying it happens. He could still do with getting some before too long.
For New Zealand they will be scratching their heads and wondering quite how they lost the game. They had easily the best of the first three days, and showed that they are an excellent side. For England to beat them there had to be some quite exceptional performances – they will be thinking that lightning is unlikely to strike twice.
Boult took nine wickets in the match, Williamson scored a fine century, Matt Henry had an excellent debut, BJ Watling showed why even if some of the commentators hadn’t paid attention, that he is a player worthy of considerable respect.
The worst thing anyone could do after this game would be to loudly trumpet that everything is now fine and dandy. There is some promise in the players coming through in the England side, but England went one up in the Caribbean too and drew the series. New Zealand are more than capable of turning it around, and England are more than capable of having a stinker. Indeed, that they won by playing out of their skin on the last two days doesn’t alter the truth that for the first three they were outbatted, outbowled and outfielded.
None of this is intended to be churlish. It was a thrilling fightback, one that reminded all those who needed the reminder that Test cricket is the apogee of the game. And that does mean enjoying it thoroughly, so to that extent the praise that will be coming England’s way is fine. It remains one match. If they do it repeatedly, that is entirely different, and maybe it could be an England side to become engaged with. It’s just a question of perspective.
England did well. That’s good. A good start. Pity about the board of course, but for the team, yes a good start.