England have just bowled New Zealand out, and need 296 runs to win. Which makes this a good point to think about where England are generally, before what happens next in the final innings of this series.
Because 296 is a hell of a lot of runs on a wearing pitch, and New Zealand are surely not only favourites, but really strong favourites. And that’s the funny thing – this is a big ask for England, and supporters, commentators and journalists are so thoroughly caught up in the new England approach that they have started thinking this is extremely gettable. It probably isn’t, but it’s absolutely marvellous to see how the arrival of McCullum, and quite likely Rob Key who appointed him, has entirely changed the mindset of not just the England team, but everyone who follows the England team. Anything is possible. And we now really think anything is possible. It just might be too.
And that’s the reason for writing this up now, because England haven’t magically become a good side overnight – all the flaws in the batting line up are still there, the fragility of the techniques of the top order bar Root is little different to before. And if England fall in a heap and get hammered today and tomorrow, that really shouldn’t affect the perception of what is a fairly seismic shift in the way everyone is looking at the game.
With the same batting line up a year ago, the degree of optimism about England’s chances would have been subterranean, now viewers and spectators are eagerly awaiting England having a right good crack at it.
It’s extraordinary. Kumar Sangakkara said yesterday that he was jealous of the members of this England team, and would have loved to play in it. Fear of failure appears to have been thrown into the bin. They aren’t going to get it right all the time, and there are going to be some pretty horrendous collapses to come as a result, but there were horrendous collapses anyway, match in, match out, there’s little downside from where England have been loitering over the last couple of years. Equally, the reckless abandon needs tempering occasionally with a slightly more rational approach – Ben Stokes’ first innings was more than freewheeling it was reckless slogging and cost him his wicket. No matter, Stokes is more than bright enough to have realised that, and has shown before he’s more than capable of being downright defensive of circumstances permit. The difference is that England seem to just believe they can win from anywhere, and that entire attitude can take them a long way.
And goodness me is it good to watch. Some might think it’s not Test cricket as we know it, and they’d have a point, but when Test cricket itself is under threat from shorter and shorter forms of the game, to have the best and longest format become not just intriguing and fascinating, but thrilling on a constant basis, then that might just be the way to have everyone with a passing interest in cricket open mouthed in disbelief. Anecdote is never data, but I’ve had friends enthusing about the cricket in the past couple of weeks in a way I’ve not heard for years. People without Sky (and that issue doesn’t go away, no matter how the ECB would like to ignore it) following closely and considering the highlights as appointment viewing.
Which means that for the first time in quite a while there are genuine grounds for some guarded optimism. Not just about the England team, because the state of the game that is drawn from to comprise that England side is still in considerable trouble, but about cricket itself in this country. That’s not to say all our troubles are over, it’s scratching the surface. But if we’re quick to point out the problems we should also acknowledge when something offers a ray of hope, and in the space of a couple of weeks, a couple of appointments appear to have provided that.
For Stokes has made an extremely bright start to his captaincy, and not just because England have won a couple of Tests. He appears engaged and willing to gamble. It’s been years since an England captain appeared so willing to show such trust a spinner not called Swann, and in this Test at least, Jack Leach has repaid that faith. The spinner has for years been the last option to turn to when all else has failed – hardly surprising that whoever the spinner was didn’t feel entirely confident or backed.
You can see the same in the rest of the bowling attack – partly because England have by hook or by crook scored runs this series and they’ve actually had a rest for once. And their role has been less about trying to pull the fat out the fire and to sit glowering as the batsmen make a right mess of a chase no one ever believed they had a chance of in the first place. But also because they are hunting their opponents down to then turn it over to batsmen who are itching to have a crack at whatever target they’re set.
Mental attitude is always cited as being important in any sporting, or indeed life, endeavour. It is rare to see it change quite so hugely in such a short period. But it does work. The great Australian and West Indies Test sides carried on winning for a fair while after their finest players departed the scene, because they expected to win, and did, until they stopped running in thin air and finally realised there was nothing underneath them except gravity.
Jonny Bairstow is another who appears to be thriving. He has always been the most sublimely talented of players, but one who has failed to fulfil that talent on a regular basis. His interviews have always been the epitome of spiky aggression, but in years past they have also tended to be extremely defensive. Not any more, he’s embracing every moment, and goodness me his liberation is a sight to behold.
Ah, England have lost a wicket to a quite brilliant run out. Never mind, we move on.
England did this with their white ball team some years back, almost overnight changing their entire attitude to one of unbridled aggression to the point of declaring war. But few thought the Test team would do the same. There were hints last time New Zealand came over with McCullum in their side, and a series of rampant attack took place. But not even close to this level. Perhaps the most similar example in microcosm was the arrival of Kevin Pietersen into the 2005 team, when instead of prodding and poking at Shane Warne he kept depositing him into the stands. Even in defeat in that Lord’s Test, it signalled a shift in approach.
England will lose Tests. They might lose a lot of them. The players aren’t going to be averaging 50 where they were averaging 30. But it might just get the best out of them, and structural change takes a long time. But above all else, the England players look like they’re having a ball, and so do the supporters.
Cricket should be fun. My God this is fun.