England’s first Test victory of this summer was rather routine. Not in terms of the run chase, because that was impressive. But it was also entirely orthodox, relying on a proven world class batsman – their only world class batsman – leading his team home with a superb innings. It didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know, namely that England were a brittle batting line up, but that if Joe Root got runs they might have a chance. At the time it seemed little more than that, no indication in particular of anything especially different, and apart from Root’s majestic knock, England probably had the worst of the game. So sure, a win, and a welcome one after the dreadful run of the last 18 months, but maybe not a whole lot more. It’s with hindsight it appears to have been greater than that, with it granting a degree of confidence and belief in the next step. Since then all hell has broken loose, the batting performances becoming ever more extraordinary and insane. After the conclusion of today’s Test Ben Stokes said a part of him had hoped India’s lead had reached 450 in order to see what England did about it. And you can feel this team is absolutely itching to have a go at a world record chase just to see if they can do it. It’s a world record for a reason, but after the absurdly easy and routine chasing down of 380 who is to say they couldn’t do it?
And in a tactical and strategic sense, this has an effect. Teams will be wary of setting England a total that up to now will have been considered a safe one, particularly with a time element. Leaving England 300 to get at 5 an over has been something that could be viewed as placing the pressure entirely on an England team that had little intent to go after it and a couple of sessions to survive. Not any more, opponents would be viewing it as a risk to do so. Even 400 plus will be treated as though it’s a feasible target. That isn’t to say for a second that the game has been entirely turned on its head – in such circumstances the bowling team should feel they were in a strong position and not all fifth day pitches will be remotely as accommodating as the ones this summer, but the mind is a funny thing, and the nagging thought that England won’t just go for it, but might well get it will be present in many an opposing dressing room from now on. A similar thing happened with the ODI team, where teams would often be so aware that they needed a big total against an England side that made it abundantly clear they thought they could chase anything that opponents overreached and fell in a heap. Test cricket isn’t white ball cricket, true, but the difference so far this summer has been narrower than ever seen before.
Likewise, the disquiet when building a lead will be entirely about the potential doubt of whether it’s enough. It shifts the pressure onto England’s opponents in a way that has never been tried before in the longest form of the game, or at least not to this extent. It’s why the whole Bazball approach is so extraordinarily fascinating to watch how it pans out over the longer term. England haven’t become radically better as a batting line up overnight, but it is the case that the quite incredible levels of belief flowing through them have raised their level to a degree that’s hard to credit.
There will certainly be bad days, when they fall in a heap and collapse. But they are trying this out from a position where it was hard to see how they could get any worse, with endless feeble subsidence of the batting order under the lightest of pressure. When you’re often 100 or fewer all out anyway, why the hell not? In that they are lucky – because it’s not just that this is thrilling to watch, it’s that they have licence to do it from a supporter base that wants to see something, anything, done to show some sign of life.
Stokes again probably went too far, his last couple of innings were less aggression and more rank slogging. But you can see why and how this happened – he is trying to set a particular tone to the rest of the team that he won’t take a backward step and he wants them to follow his example. That will doubtless be pulled back in to some extent in the months ahead because he’s got a decent cricket brain, and he’s got the buy in from everyone, on and off the pitch to a level he doesn’t need to demand they follow suit. An example of the level of commitment was surely to be found yesterday evening, when the nightwatchman padded up was Stuart Broad. Stuart Broad!
It’s really why this morning and yesterday were so impressive. Although England scored at a preposterous rate, they weren’t going all out for trying to hit every ball to the boundary, it was aggressive, but it was controlled. Jonny Bairstow’s twin hundreds were markedly slower than those against New Zealand, yet still rapid by any standards other than his own. Root’s tempo is little changed, but it suddenly looks like part of a bigger plan than just his own ability, oft mentioned, to score quickly without anyone noticing. The ramp shots though – that is someone not just in astonishing form, but someone who doesn’t fear a bollocking if it goes wrong.
And it will. If there’s a certainty, at some point it will. But there is a difference between it going wrong on occasion due to the high risk/reward equation or doing so on a consistent basis because it’s not sustainable in Test cricket, and it’s that we don’t yet know, and that that will be enthralling to witness. Whether they can play like this away from home, whether they can do it against the likes of Australia (if they’ve done it to India and New Zealand I simply see no reason why not) and so on. But at the moment they are pushing the envelope to see what they can get away with, and it feels dangerous and exciting – not necessarily something people would normally think about Test cricket.
And here’s the biggie: Test cricket has been in real and increasing trouble, as the white ball game dominates the cricketing calendar. If England are to try to play like this consistently, and even more so if other teams follow their lead, then the Test game becomes far more than the one that people have loved for decades, it becomes one to really pull in those younger adherents that everyone is trying to chase after. It becomes an attraction in itself to those who happily go to an ODI hoping to see fireworks. That might not be entirely traditional, in fact it’s rather the opposite. But we have been hoping for a way that Test cricket might not just survive, but even thrive, and who knows, maybe this could be it.
It’s anecdotal, sure, but I’ve had plenty of friends who scarcely pay attention normally talk glowingly about how England have been playing. It is the fours and sixes that do it, and however facile many might find that, it’s not a crime to be practical in the approach to the need for Test cricket to succeed.
It doesn’t mean the challenges have gone away, nor the mismanagement by the ECB. Indeed, it would be a truly delicious irony after the millions chucked at the Hundred if the way to entice people into cricket proved to be the Test team instead, especially as Test cricket is, and always has been, the ECB’s main source of income.
Yet we now have a six week gap to the South Africa Test series as the white ball internationals take over and domestically the Hundred rears it’s controversial head. It’s unfortunate, but we didn’t really expect England’s start to this summer anyway, just the opposite. But let’s put it this way, the England Test team are raising all sorts of questions at the moment. There might not be answers, but they’re really, really good questions. And it’s an absolute blast isn’t it?