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Match Analysis

England's entertainers get carried away with new-found Test zest

Full-blooded approach reaps early rewards before familiar descent into chaos

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
02-Jun-2022
On the stroke of lunch at Lord's, a parade of vintage bombers wended their way across the skyline behind the Mound Stand: ancient yet magnificent, still fully operational despite the gruelling years of service, and now back out of mothballs to stir the nation's soul at a time of deep introspection.
Rinse and repeat for 800 words? Easy. James Anderson … Platinum Jubilee flypast … 170 Test matches … yadda yadda. You know what, to hell with it. I'm wedded to that intro, and I'm keeping it.
It was, after all, one hell of an intro. Or, rather, a re-intro from English cricket's longest-reigning monarch, one that mocked those failed attempts to prise him from his throne. Yes, you could argue that Anderson's sublime opening gambit - four overs, two wickets, no runs - was rather overshadowed in the final analysis of a chaotic day, but for as long as it lasted (much like England's subsequent batting display) you could not pretend that you hadn't been entertained by the pageantry.
Because here it is. The new England regime of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum has unfurled its blueprint for the reinvigoration of Test cricket … and, as you might expect, there is still some room for finessing. But if this is the nature of the new England beast, it won't be long before Test matches are restored to their much-tarnished pinnacle (and they won't be long either…)
"We've come to entertain, and it's been an entertaining day of cricket," said England's debutant Matt Potts at the close, in a display of plain-speaking that was as impressive as his bullish bowling had previously been. "We're going to throw our punches, and if they throw us two, we'll throw them four." Seconds out, round two gets underway at 11am, and on this evidence it will be prudent to arrive in good time.
On the eve of the Test, and with an unexpected enthusiasm for semantics, Stokes had insisted that he was not a fan of the vogue phrase "red-ball reset". Instead, he preferred to term this match as a "blank slate" for all concerned. It made for a neat headline, albeit a potential tautology, but after barely 20 minutes of a startling opening gambit, it was clear that the difference between the two phrases was significantly more subtle than England's full-frontal methods.
"Resetting" the Test team, after all, would have implied something closer to revolution than evolution - and as England learnt to their cost in the Caribbean in the spring, there are aspects of the ancien regime that remain irreplaceable, even when they aren't at the very top of their game.
The "blank slate" mentality, on the other hand, invites nothing more complex than the same, but better (or "faster", as Trevor Bayliss might have put it in a not-so-bygone era). No fretful over-thinking - as epitomised by the sight of England's openers batting on one leg in the MCG nets in December, or Jos Buttler's thousand-yard stare as another catch went down in Adelaide - but more focus on the facets that each player knows that they do well, and more collective buy-in on those occasions when each player hits a hot streak.
And so it was that, after losing the toss (thankfully, it might be argued, given that England's batting was too pumped-up to function), Anderson found outswing from the outset, and was duly rewarded with a six-man slip cordon before half an hour of the day's play had gone.
So it was that Jonny Bairstow trusted the same keeper's instincts that had served him so well in 49 of his 85 Test appearances and, by flinging himself thrillingly to his left for Anderson's opening wicket, established the parameters by which the ball kept following him for the rest of the session. So it was that England went to lunch on a rampant 39 for 6, with their only thoughts at that stage of the day being the size of their eventual first-innings lead, not an actual fight for one.
But even while this hurtling jalopy was racing off into the distance, there was early evidence that England's hard-and-fast approach might yet put some unaccustomed strain on the wheels.
McCullum's breakneck insistence that his fielders chase every lost cause to the boundary, for instance, came worryingly close to a literal interpretation for the luckless Jack Leach - even if, in the short term, England's response to that setback was gloriously proactive, as Matt Parkinson, the lesser-spotted legspinner who couldn't catch a break under the previous regime, was given the signal to warm up while sitting on his sofa in Manchester.
That harbinger of chaos was even more in evidence in England's retrospectively sketchy hour after lunch, as New Zealand recovered from a desperate 45 for 7 - thanks in the first instance to Colin de Grandhomme's belligerence in adversity, but also thanks to England's gung-ho addiction to the short ball.
It paid dividends in between whiles, as Potts doubled Anderson's tally with a brace of steeplers at fine leg. And yet, in the final analysis, England's approach proved no less gullible than the one they had taken against India's tail on this same ground last summer - when a descent of red-mist against the renowned bunny Jasprit Bumrah ended up costing them the match, and potentially that soon-to-be-completed series.
But the mentality was even more in evidence when England's turn came to bat. Alex Lees was so mindful of his obligation to rotate the strike while providing the top-order glue that he all but ran himself out from the second ball of the innings, even as Zak Crawley - similarly mindful of the need to trust his natural attacking instincts, threw his bat through his first delivery from Tim Southee, and edged just short of the slips.
It was there in Crawley's free-flowing response to that sort-of let-off, a gallivanting innings of 43 from 56 that lived by the cover-drive and died by it too; it was there in Joe Root's dangled-batted dab to his kryptonite de Grandhomme, whose irritingly un-nurdleable outswingers had condemned him to a similarly torturous stay on this ground in the World Cup final.
It was there in Lees' demise too - lbw for a doughty but unremarkable 25 from 77, the same mode of dismissal as his first three innings in the Caribbean. And it was there in Bairstow's hard-handed thrash off the back foot - a shot that caused him to be bowled for the 36th time in his Test career, and re-affirmed the immense difficulty of translating an IPL mindset straight into the red-ball game. That could yet be where McCullum truly earns his corn, of course. But, as he admitted in his unveiling last week, he wouldn't have been tempted by the challenge had he not known how tough it could be.
But frankly, what's a game to do? New Zealand are in the same boat. They were stuffed by a County Select XI in Chelmsford last week, slumping to 19 for 6 at the hands of Jamie Porter before Ben Compton sealed a seven-wicket defeat with his 1000th red-ball run before the end of May. Today, one of their very best performers was Trent Boult, a man who lost the IPL final on Sunday and by rights shouldn't even be over his jetlag yet, let alone ready to bust a gut in a five- (four? two-and-a-bit?) day Test.
No, despite England's teething problems on a rumbustious first day of the series, it's hard to make the case that they got their approach so wrong that it amounts to a false start. All they can expect is that every man does his duty to the limit of their ability, in whatever guise each individual deems most appropriate. Because win, lose or draw (well, maybe not draw…), it will be hard to go home after displays like this, and claim that you have not been royally entertained.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket