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Analysis

Brendon McCullum wants England to go 'harder' after regime's first setback

Coach retains optimism after South Africa administer a thumping at Lord's

England head coach Brendon McCullum is staying positive despite a hefty loss in the Lord's Test  •  Getty Images

England head coach Brendon McCullum is staying positive despite a hefty loss in the Lord's Test  •  Getty Images

"Over the next while you'll probably get used to my optimism as well," Brendon McCullum said with a smile. "I don't tend to overreact about anything."
England men's Test coach was speaking next to the Lord's Pavilion after the first defeat of his tenure. One of his provisos on media engagements since taking over in May was a preference to speaking after losses than wins: to let the players take the glory while he can front up for the slack. And after South Africa triumphed by an innings and 12 runs, there was plenty of slack going around.
Coming after three wins against New Zealand and one against India earlier this summer, the management team are in no mood to overreact. Their foundations of attacking cricket were not installed to be dug up at the first sign of instability. And after Ben Stokes was unequivocal in his stance that commitment to the brand was the issue rather than the brand itself, McCullum reinforced his captain's view by similarly doubling down.
"I guess one of the messages we will be talking about is 'did we go hard enough with our approach? Could we maybe go a little harder and try turn some pressure back on the opposition as well?'
"There's not much point in hitting the nets as such. For us, we've got very good cricketers and they've had a lot of cricket over their careers and they know what they're doing. We just need to tidy up a couple of areas. And one message will be 'can we go a little harder?'"
The idea of going harder when you've lost a game inside six sessions, and your 20 wickets inside 83 overs, will naturally jar. The context, which McCullum went on to offer, pertained to the situation England found themselves in from the moment Dean Elgar won the toss on Wednesday - batting first.
Victories this season have come through chasing targets of 277, 299, 296 and 378. But the precursors to those were going out in their first innings of these matches after their opponents had their first go. In those first three success, England only trailed by New Zealand once going into the third innings (by 14 runs at Trent Bridge after the Blackcaps posted 553). The 130 they ceded to India during this period of the Edgbaston Test was made up for by dismissing India for 245 in their second effort.
In essence, they "chased" throughout the match, not just in the final innings. Their opponents set the pace, and anyone with an appreciation of pursuit, ranging from track running to Mario Kart, will know hunting down the one in front draws a little more focus than constantly looking over your shoulder.
The burden of setting the pace, dishing out the banana peels rather than the turtle shells, is an altogether different challenge for this group. Something that England have struggled with for years, long before this first match of three against South Africa when they were skittled for 165 before the visitors established an insurmountable 161-run lead in their one and only bat.
But McCullum sees no reason why the characteristics exhibited so far can't be applied from the off: "Sometimes, when I think the scoreboard dictates what you're chasing, we can be a little braver as well. So maybe that's something for us batting first, maybe we can be a little braver, maybe we can go a little harder than what we did in this Test match.
"We did what we could in those conditions but weren't quite able to get enough runs in that first innings."
He referenced "a few times" during the innings of 165 and 149 where he felt England could have gone "harder".
"We could maybe have been a little braver to be able to turn some pressure back on the opposition - in both innings. But it's always the way, right? You have to try to absorb pressure at times and get yourself back to a position of parity to then put some pressure back on the opposition. We weren't able to do that."
Given how exceptional South Africa's attack was in both innings, it's hard to pinpoint those exact moments. Perhaps when Ollie Pope and Stokes were a little cautious up to lunch on Wednesday? Maybe when Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Foakes were relatively flat-footed to their respective dismissals on Friday, even if Bairstow was able to lay a couple on Nortje.
Indeed, Nortje felt like a different proposition to anything England have faced so far. He served up the fastest deliveries sent down this summer as part of a sharp foursome alongside Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Marco Jansen. As such, 34.4 percent of the deliveries sent down by South Africa in this match were above 87mph. Given England's percentage was just 0.2 per cent, and with all the possible options to match that pace consistently out injured, the onus is on the home batters working out how to counter rather than expecting the bowlers to mimic.
"He's [Nortje] a very good bowler who bowls good pace," McCullum said. "But there have been games when our guys have been able to combat that and have done it previously against some of the best bowling attacks in the world. On this occasion we weren't able to.
"I am not going to give any secrets away because we play them again next week, but there were some conversations and we should have been able to react to it."
A surprise weekend off is a silver lining ahead of what now is a slightly longer turnaround ahead of the second Test at Emirates Old Trafford on Wednesday. There won't be any extra training, with some players using the extra time off to return home while others will remain in London and attend the premiere of Stokes' documentary, "Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes", which takes place in the capital. The squad as a whole will report to Manchester on Tuesday morning.
One of those will be Zak Crawley, who returned scores of nine and 13 to continue what has been a dispiriting summer for the 24-year-old. His average this summer sits at 16.40, with a highest score of 46 as part of a 107-run stand in the victorious chase against India, the only time he has exuded the panache and game-changing qualities the group speak so often about.
McCullum felt Crawley's innings of 13 showed a degree of composure before he was lbw sweeping against Keshav Maharaj. And he reiterated his view that he does not expect a steady run of form from the Kent opener, which will irk some fans as it will top-order batters chalking up scores in domestic first-class cricket, like Rory Burns and Ben Duckett.
"I look at a guy like Zak and his skill set is not to be a consistent cricketer," McCullum said. "He's not that type of player but he is put in that situation because he has a game which means, when he gets going, he can win matches for England.
"We have got to be really positive around the language we use with him and be really consistent with the selections around that as well, and keep giving guys opportunities.
"He's a talent, and there are not too many of those guys floating around. He's still learning his game at this level and that's okay, that's going to take a bit of patience and a bit of persistence as well. There have been some fine players over the years who have had periods where they haven't quite nailed it as well, but then have ended up as great commodities for their sides. We have just got to work that out but I believe in him, that's for sure."
It is beginning to feel like the most sensible thing for Crawley is getting him out of the firing line rather than continuously pumping up his morale. The encouragement will soon just be white noise to the right-hander, and perhaps that point has come already. McCullum disagrees, both at the sentiment and the notion Crawley is in any kind of mental turmoil.
"He's a tough fella, Zak. He loves doing what he's doing, playing for England and you will see him around the group and with the contributions he makes inside the dressing room, there's stuff that goes beyond runs too. And also, I think selection loyalty is really important because not only does it build loyalty with the guys that are in the side but also it builds loyalty for the guys on the outside, knowing that when their time and their opportunity does come they are going to be afforded the same sort of loyalty."
As for McCullum, the upbeat disposition comes so naturally that the sincerity of his words behind closed doors can no doubt lift those under his care in a short space of time, especially as they have already bought in to this new era. Quite how those same words resonate outside those four walls remains to be seen.
"I know we are judged by our results, but for us it's bigger than that and the approach we try to take to the game," he added. "The language we use in the dressing room and the confidence that we try to build amongst the group for the style of cricket we want to play. It gives us, we think - the skipper and myself - our greatest chance of being able to win Test matches and become a very good Test side.
"But we're still going to lose Test matches occasionally. And that hurts. We've just got to crack on and get yourselves up for the next one."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo