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Did England go too hard? (And is that even the right question?)

Why it seems almost reckless to pass judgement on the Edgbaston defeat

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Ben Stokes rues a near miss, England vs Australia, 1st Ashes Test, Edgbaston, 5th day, June 20, 2023

Ben Stokes has indicated that England will plough on with their tactics, never mind the consequences. But a little temperance might not hurt  •  PA Photos/Getty Images

The barest of margins. Ben Stokes' fingertips replacing Nathan Lyon's four years ago at Headingley in the narrative. The two edges on Lyon's bat that refused to yield. Moeen Ali's finger. A tired ball on a tired pitch, propelled by tired bowlers - to call for a new one or not to call for a new one? Go figure. Jonny Bairstow's roller coaster on his return to the side. The 75-minute delay on Sunday afternoon that so rudely interrupted the England openers. Stuart Broad's no-ball. That declaration, and so on and so forth.
The first thing we were taught as children with a love of cricket was the forward defence - a non-negotiable. With it came line and length; the walk-in from your position in the field and the long barrier. We were to be seen and not heard until there were runs and wickets aplenty under our belt. Woe betide a reckless shot, wayward ball or misfield. As we grew up, in dressing rooms at breaks in play, the captain was given the bowling figures and the first column he studied was "maidens"; if these were scarce, he tore a strip. We wore a team blazer to lunch, and the team cap, never a sunhat, when it warmed up. The way to behave and the manner in which to do things was set in stone, as if they were part of the Empire, which they were. None of this was much good, frankly. The old ways were hierarchical and stifling.
Imagine you are invited to perform without any reference to accountability. Think of your management removing the routine from your diary and the fear of failure from your approach. Imagine their primary concern being your clearest headspace and your brightest smile. Imagine a captain and coach who want only for your happiness because they understand that creativity comes with clarity of thought. Martin Crowe used to say that you cannot, absolutely cannot, bat with "traffic". At times in his career he had a lot of traffic and resultant low scores. Without a care in the world, he could bat with the gods.
Reflect on the Stokes-McCullum axis and, in essence, you have the gist of where England have been heading this past year. Both men have endured struggles. These experiences have led them to see cricket as a way out of darkness, the consequence of which is their unconditional commitment to playing the game without "traffic". As we have seen, the players have responded to the call with enthusiasm. It's the gall, the audacity, the sheer and abrasive devil-may-care self-confidence that leaves the viewer wide-eyed. The message is, we are England, we are in your face, and it couldn't matter less where you come from or what is written in our past.
To reverse-scoop or ramp the first ball of a day's play is to be not just free of the fear of failure but to play sport without concern for process or outcome: only enlightenment. From this attitude comes unbridled joy. Mostly the glory of sporting performance comes in reflection; not here - here it comes in the moment. Joe Root reverses first up against the world's best fast bowler, Pat Cummins. Root misses and Root smiles.
First evening, Root sprays sixes around Edgbaston while moving towards and past a splendid hundred. He's licking his lips, literally, at the thought of another 35 minutes freewheeling against the world champions and the captain stands up and calls him in. Yes, England declare - 393 for 8. Laconic, then smiling, Root leaves the field to an ecstatic reception. He looks neither shocked nor even surprised. It is the new way: expect the unexpected and assume nothing. The old order is lost in templates, pragmatism and established opinion. The new order is to see where the wind will take you.
It is less what was right or wrong than what it all added up to. Judgement on a binary basis is too easy, lazy even. The trick is to see what it meant
Well, yesterday that wind took England to the wire - an idiom if ever there was one. The mission was to win the first Test match of the 2023 Ashes with a method and style hitherto rarely seen in the storied history of this sometimes ridiculous, often infuriating, and ultimately rather wonderful game that is cricket. England failed in the mission; their opponents were an iota better when push came to shove past the 7pm chime on Tuesday evening.
But to pass judgement on this defeat seems almost reckless, as if the glory in the game itself outweighs judgement or analysis. It is less what was right or wrong than what it all added up to. Judgement on a binary basis is too easy, lazy even. The trick is to see what it meant, ask some questions and work out where it will lead.
The facts are that Australia won a magnificent Test match by two wickets. Captain Planet - Pat Cummins - put in shifts first with the ball on Monday afternoon and then with the bat yesterday evening that were more the stuff of some superhero. The opening batter Usman Khawaja made 206 runs in the match with the calm of a vicar delivering a kindly mass. The offspinner Lyon, who claimed eight wickets with the ball, then held his nerve in a manner that brought redemption from the ball he dropped at Headingley four years before and which cost his team that Test match. These were the men who saw Australia across the rubicon.
More generally, the Australians appeared to have benefited from the World Test Championship final at the Kia Oval; England in contrast, looked a little rusty, as if a week on the Scottish links had got the better of bat and ball. They might have made more use of the Test match against Ireland at Lord's but Stokes chose to declare - that word! - and look to close that game early with three different bowlers from those used at Edgbaston. Might Jonny Bairstow have been sharper behind the stumps with some time in the county game the week before the Test? (It should be acknowledged that Edgbaston produced an awkward pitch on which to keep wicket.) Were Jimmy Anderson and Ollie Robinson short of a gallop? Would Moeen have benefited from bowling in a Warwickshire shirt the weekend before last? Rhythm is an elusive thing.
We don't know what's right or wrong even if we choose to comment on it. We admire Stokes for his initiative and origination but we worry about the way in which due care and attention to the art of batting has so quickly morphed to something profligate. We rejoice in the shackles thrown off, we know that the gloves are tied on but there are bits of it all we don't get. "A chance to pounce," said Stokes of the declaration, which is a cracking answer. We talk about nets and training as if they were games of the ancient warriors. We don't know what is right or wrong but we do know that England had won 11 of their previous 13 Test matches and lost one by a single run in the final over of five days in battle. Now they have lost another by two wickets, but it was such fun!
The scorecard will forever tell us the result but never that the game was fifty-fifty throughout and turned daily on a dime. Yes, the practicalities of winning a Test match were marginally better applied by the Australians and once or twice missed by Stokes' team. This is not to dismiss England's hugely entertaining departure from the norm but to say that, as in all things, moderation has its place. You can, unwittingly or otherwise, get a bit too funky.
Might Bairstow have been sharper behind the stumps with some time in the county game the week before the Test? Were Anderson and Robinson short of a gallop? Would Moeen have benefited from bowling in a Warwickshire shirt the weekend before last?
The practicality of the declaration debate is that runs were coming ridiculously easy to Root, as if he were toying with a schoolboy attack, and that in the second innings they would not. So, cash in while you can. Whoever took their foot off an opponent's throat while the outcome of the fight was in the balance? This was neither bravado not hubris. Just a moment in time; another moment when Stokes thought differently from the rest of us. But it likely cost him runs he would have paid for yesterday afternoon. And yet, had he clung on to a difficult chance at square leg, England might have won and his genius would be the talk of the town. Small margins, huh.
What comes next and how? If it's this good, do we care? Back to Stokes. "It was gripping all the way through, never knowing which way it was going. If that's not attracting people to the game we love, then I don't know what will… I've said a few times, we know the way we play best. The message to the dressing room will be: more of the same please."
There you have it. England will not revert to a default postion, they will plough on and damn the consequences. Rethinking yourself and your method is stress-free when it works. The test now is that it hasn't, quite. The quite is the motivation, for the moment. Truth be told, they didn't play especially well but came so close - probably should have won, actually. Equally, they silenced Messrs Warner, Labuschagne and Smith successfully but didn't win. That's a bummer.
A little temperance perhaps? Ideally, yes. There is a reason why the old ways have worked. Australia applied them at Edgbaston and were accused of being un-Australian in much of their business. England flew to 666 runs in 866 balls against a top-class attack. Khawaja was chosen as the Player of the Match for 206 scored off 518 balls. So who is right and wrong? Australia played smart, got lucky at times and hung in there when all seemed lost.
The key is not to overthink the defeat or, more specifically, the individual disappointments. Inhibition is never far away; its best friend is self-consciousness. In the street, the people want the England cricket team to win back the Ashes every bit as much as they want to applaud brighter cricket. Losing hurts us all. Sport is a hard marker; few teams can be Manchester City and provide both. England have been one of those for a year now. Let's see. What we do know is that Lord's cannot come quickly enough for those of us who watch on. For the players, a few good sleeps are in order.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator