Red Ball Re-Set

In England by Bill Ricquier

We knew things couldn’t get any worse. And most people thought it would take a while before they got better. In almost every respect England’s victory over New Zealand in the LV Test series – whatever happens in the third Test at Headingley – is a rousing and almost sensational result.

The contrast between the new England and the old is most clearly illustrated by comparing the current series with that against the same opposition – then about to be crowned as World Test champions – twelve months ago. The home side’s ambition, as stated by captain Joe Root – was to win all seven Tests of the summer. But when set 273 to win the first Test at Lord’s, England made no attempt at the chase; they made 170 for three in 70 overs. Compare that to new captain Ben Stokes’ instruction to Trent Bridge match winner Jonny Bairstow after tea on the astounding fifth day at Trent Bridge: “Don’t think about keeping it on the floor; just keep hitting it into the stands.” In his pulverising innings of 136 Bairstow hit seven sixes and fourteen fours.

In the first nine overs after tea, Bairstow and Stokes added 105, effectively putting the result beyond doubt. Before that New Zealand must always have had some hope. In the last few years one of England’s perceived strengths has been their bowling all-rounders – players like Chris Woakes, Sam Curran and Moeen Ali. With none of them available England had four number elevens to bat after keeper Ben Foakes. In the first innings they lost their last five wickets for 23. But under Stokes and new coach Brendon McCullum there was to be no stepping back. Four wickets were down with over 200 still needed but the fact is that Bairstow and Stokes never looked like getting out.

It is impossible to ignore the impact of the Indian Premier League (“IPL”) when considering the Trent Bridge Test. Three of the match’s top performers, Bairstow, Daryl Mitchell, who scored 252 for once out, and Trent Boult, who took five wickets in England’s first innings and removed Zak Crawley and Root cheaply in the second, all arrived back in England just in time for the first Test at Lord’s having spent the previous few weeks at the IPL. The Bairstow – Stokes liaison was essentially a white ball thing. The target after tea was 160 in 38 overs – a walk in the park in white ball cricket. England won the game with 20 overs to spare, having conceded 553 in the first innings: that is surreal.

As the drama of Trent Bridge was unfolding, the broadcasting rights for the next batch of IPL seasons were being auctioned. As a result the IPL is now the second most valuable sports property in the world, after America’s NFL, reducing the Premiership to third place. People are talking about the first 3-million-dollar cricketer – not bad for six weeks’ work. Very good for the game you might think. We shall see. I am inclined to agree with Scyld Berry’s assessment that there was more genuine excitement in one day of the Trent Bridge Test than in the whole of this year’s apparently never-ending IPL season. I mentioned unfolding drama just now. You certainly see real skill and talent in an IPL game. But unfolding drama isn’t their thing. That, sadly, doesn’t mean cricket’s administrators will not continue to prefer the shorter formats to Test cricket. Seventeen thousand people watched that last day at Trent Bridge for free. For some of them it was their first taste of Test cricket, and they had the time of their lives. That won’t make any difference to the administrators. For them it will be the same old question: where is the money coming from ?

New Zealand were certainly unlucky to lose Kyle Jamieson, who couldn’t bowl in England’s second innings. Kane Williamson, clearly out of sorts in the first Test, missed the second altogether. But neither of those absences can really explain New Zealand’s defeat. When both sides make over 500 in the first innings, something exceptional is needed if there is to be a positive result. An example, not infrequently mentioned in this blog is the Adelaide Test in the 2006-07 Ashes. There, as at Trent Bridge, the critical stage of the match was the third innings. At Adelaide, England were ruthlessly dismantled by Shane Warne, and Australia had a simple target. At Trent Bridge, New Zealand couldn’t decide what was a safe total a d how to get there, sometimes going too slowly, sometimes panicking – witness the three run outs.

While lacking the bruising pyrotechnics of the Trent Bridge run chase, the Lord’s Test was equally enthralling. England were set a similar sort of target – 278 as opposed to 299 – and, as at Trent Bridge, got there for the loss of five wickets, with England’s new captain playing a significant part in both chases. Time, however, was not an issue at Lord’s (the game was over with more than a day to spare) and the match was of a very different character. 

Unlike at Trent Bridge, where only Crawley among the batters failed, bowlers held sway for much of the Lord’s Test. New Zealand were 39 for six at lunch on the first day, and their top four made 50 runs between them in their eight innings. Despite this, there were times in the Lord’s Test when New Zealand really looked the likely winners, which was never really the case at Trent Bridge. A pivotal moment appeared to have come in England’s second innings at Lord’s when Stokes, then on one, chopped on to Colin de Grandhomme. It was a no ball and Stokes was able to continue his vital partnership with Root. He was eventually out for 54.

The plusses for England – the return of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, the development of Alex Lees, the return to form of Ollie Pope, Matthew Potts’ first steps in Test cricket – all owe something to the new regime. England always had the players – the issue was how to get the best out of them.

Is it possible to pick a single incident to highlight the “new” England? Well, we all love to see fours and sixes. There were more of them at Trent Bridge than in any Test in history. There were massive strikes by Bairstow and Stokes in their incredible fifth evening assault. But I would pick a shot from the first innings. On the fourth morning Root reverse lapped the second ball he received on the day, from Tim Southee, for six. Root had made his eleventh Test century since January 2021; his tenth had been the wonderful match- winning innings at Lord’s. Throughout his career he has been a model of consistency, technique and classical style. In his press conference overnight – unusual for him in mid innings – he said people should watch out for new dimensions to his batting. And then came that amazing shot. He was as good as his word.

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