England must end insularity to become great
It was a tortured process but we got there in the end. A surprisingly generous weather god and two empathetic umpires saw the second Test match to a conclusion. From it came embarrassment for New Zealand and the satisfaction of a job extremely well done by England.
It was a close-run thing and might easily have not worked out so well. The splendid umpires, Marais Erasmus and Steve Davis, of no-nonsense South African and Australian hue respectively, had kept the players at it through murky light on day four and annoying drizzle on the final day. Only clearly unfair conditions took them from the field of play.
There was much to admire in England's performance, not just here but at Lord's too. The hiccup a couple of months back in New Zealand has been sorted. England are firing much as they should and thus will worry the heck out of Michael Clarke and the boys, who had watched in Dunedin and Auckland and thought there were lines to breach.
Outside of Alastair Cook and Graeme Swann, who both played some sublime cricket, it was fresh faces that caught the eye. Joe Root for his original talent. Johnny Bairstow for his intent and Steve Finn for being a no-frills old-fashioned fast bower when England needed just that. The balance in the attack is one of its strengths. That, and the way in which the bowlers sustain their attack on the stumps.
Afterwards, when asked about Jonathan Trott's indifference on Sunday afternoon - he scored 11 from 69 balls - Cook made reference to the "one percenters". His implication was not to dwell on minutia at a time of celebration but to recognise and learn. Fair call, let's do that for a moment.
The captain will now appreciate that there is more than one way to skin the cat. He might have enforced the follow-on on Sunday afternoon but, reasonably enough, he chose not to. He should have declared earlier than he did on Monday afternoon, to give himself the best chance of finishing the game before the predicted rains came. He would not wish to be a slave to the forecasters - Michael Fish put everyone off forever - but if they say it will rain in Yorkshire in May, they are probably right.
First the follow-on. Three good reasons persuaded Cook to bat again. Firstly, protection of his bowlers from burnout. Four man attacks and seven Tests, six of which are back-to-back, mean careful player management. Secondly, modernism - the international captains of the moment love to squeeze every drop of hope from the opposition's portfolio of response. Richie Benaud will not refer to a "declaration" in instances where the game is shut down by the batting side, rather he talks of "closure". And thirdly, ensuring further deterioration of the pitch by batting on it yourself while natural wear and tear takes its course and while the New Zealand bowlers run all over the bits that Swann aims at. There is a fourth reason and not such a good one. We will come to it later.
There is no doubt that Steve Waugh's decision to enforce the follow-on in Kolkata in 2001 - a decision that famously backfired - changed the Australian approach. Waugh liked the term "mental disintegration" and applied it to his tactics as much as to vulnerable members of the opposition. Back then, the game was in thrall of the Australians and most captains followed their lead. Michael Vaughan was not one. He made Ricky Ponting's fine team follow on at Trent Bridge in 2005, a brave move that worked out well in the end - though not without Shane Warne's Herculean effort to embarrass him.
The key is flexibility: repeat, there is more than one way to skin the cat. Cook opted for safety first and then a crushing of the enemy spirit. When interviewed on Monday evening Trott called it the natural course of the match, which is as he knows it but not necessarily how it must be. The great sides have options and they create, even reinvent. Cook had bowlers who were fresh enough and who do not play another Test until July. It was a good time for him to see another place. Mind you, this is not an argument you would win with England's captain and fair enough. His team won the match by a mile and everyone had a good workout. The excellent quality of most of the cricket confirmed they are clear favourites for the Ashes. We can hardly quibble.
But "closure?" We can quibble with that. The perfect time might have been at lunch, with the lead at 429, though there was a case to allow Root and Bairstow such abandon. The time at which the two tyros - high, happy and unbeaten - had hurried the lead to 450 was the next time to pull out. The opportunity to outwit nature and New Zealand on the same day was spurned by this caution.
If this sounds pedantic, it is only to make a point. If England are to become the best team in the world and to play a brand of cricket that leaves some sort of legacy, they have to move out of insularity and into some rarified space. Witness the unambitious fields that were placed once the hardness had worn off the ball. The reason for setting a mammoth target is that it is not attainable and therefore aggressive plays are at your fingertips for the remainder of the match. Yet England had sweepers out, protecting the boundaries and, for a time to Ross Taylor, placed only one slip.
If England had shown greater urgency, had imposed themselves without apprehension, had indicated a greater arrogance born of their total control of the match, there would have been no need for today's weather-led nervousness. No need for Andy Flower's animated exhortations to the groundstaff; no need for desperate appeals to the umpires and pleading looks to the sky; no need to crank up the bowlers on a cold, damp day.
Maybe, in a reversal of Australia's Kolkata experience, the captain will be once bitten and now shy. Maybe the follow-on floodgates will open again, though more likely he will tell Trott to press on next time, for in truth, Monday's declaration procrastination arose out of Trott's tardy fare on Sunday afternoon. There was an excuse for Nick Compton's go-slow - 7 from 45 balls - but not for Trott, who was chained by self-absorption.
Finally then to Compton: the fourth possible reason for not enforcing the follow-on. It is a worthy policy of both selectors and team management to back the ones they choose. It will go against their grain to leave Compton out in Nottingham against Australia, so surely, here in Leeds in a match with only one winner, the opportunity to see if he might let go a bit, might break free of the tension that has engulfed him, was a temptation. It may be that his painful inability to do so has made their decision easier. Of course, a good batsman has not become a bad one in a fortnight. Somerset will have the benefit of his rehabilitation and which of us dare say it will not be complete in time for him to have another crack at the dream that must now haunt him.
Meanwhile, it's Root to open, Kevin Pietersen to return and Bairstow to stay at No. 6. Simple really. Go Joe.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK