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Feature

Next stop the Ashes, as England learn to love Test cricket again

Joyful tour of New Zealand ends in historic defeat, but buoyant mood is the ultimate takeaway

James Anderson and Jack Leach see the funny side after England lost the Wellington Test by one run  •  Getty Images

James Anderson and Jack Leach see the funny side after England lost the Wellington Test by one run  •  Getty Images

There was no big debrief following England men's 1-1 series draw with New Zealand. The second Test was confined to the annals of history quickly - albeit very high up.
Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes spoke of their pride at how the last month had gone: the professional victory in the first Test at the Bay Oval, their commitment to cause on a thrilling final day of the second at the Basin Reserve. As counterintuitive as it may sound on the outside, the message was to take pride in contributing to a spectacle that encouraged so many to attend and even more to tune in.
And just like that, they were off. McCullum for a round of golf with his former Blackcaps captain Stephen Fleming, equal parts tune-up for his appearance in the New Zealand Open in Queenstown and tune-in to the wavelength of the CSK head coach, whom hope will look after the Test captain during his forthcoming IPL stint.
Stokes himself went back to Christchurch to spend some time with his family. Other players set off on their own jaunts with their partners who have been a noticeable presence on tour, in keeping with a focus on making the players as comfortable as possible. Ben Duckett, off the back of another sound showing upon his return to the fold this winter, headed to Dubai with his partner before he goes back east for the T20I series in Bangladesh. The grind never stops.
A lot was made of the bonhomie of this series. These two nations have come up against each other so often in the last few years, across three Test series and two T20 World Cups since the start of 2021. Even friends and family are on a first-name basis with those on the opposition. One such anecdote sums this up: two opponents were play-fighting at a joint-gathering a few tours ago, only for one of the kids to take exception and jump in, unaware the altercation was light-hearted.
At the end of the thrilling Battle of the Basin, as both teams' end-of-tour drinks merged, the number of connections rekindled through County Cricket stints alone were such that you needed the difference in attire - New Zealand were still in their whites, England mostly in training gear - to tell the two groups apart. This match, and others, proved that such inter-squad camaraderie has not affected the competitiveness on the field.
To see James Anderson's wry smile at the end of his 179th Test with a wry smile, despite having been the last to fall in England's one-run defeat, said it all. When both he and Stuart Broad were axed for the Caribbean tour last March, one of the reasons given was the need for the dressing-room to grow in their absence. Their status within it was deemed a problem: the two big personalities were supposedly an intimidating presence, particularly when things went wrong with the bat. However England were going to redefine themselves after the Ashes, the presumption at the time was that they would have to do it without two bowlers who had been central to the team's positivity for most of their careers. Getting rid of them was seen as a solution.
Now, both are deemed integral to both England's present success, and their ongoing transition. Anderson and Broad took 10 wickets apiece in the series (Anderson at 16.80, Broad at 26.10). They threw themselves about in the field (uncomfortably at times), and mucked in with the wider group with renewed enthusiasm. Broad finally got to give the Nighthawk a run-out, while Anderson swapped his reverse-sweep for a charge-and-smack off Neil Wagner to bring England ever closer to the winning post in Wellington. Even if the man himself had been ambivalent about finally hitting the winning runs in a Test match, everyone in the team wanted to see it happen. Alas, the wait goes on.
Back in 2014, Anderson was reduced to tears after falling in the final over on the final day at Headingley against Sri Lanka. This time his competitive fires were evident as he questioned the non-awarding of a leg-side wide, moments before he nicked Wagner low to Tom Blundell, but the fact that he could be so phlegmatic after the event was, in its own way, a reflection of a tour quietly being deemed a success.
McCullum and Stokes have long preached that England must focus on playing engaging cricket for the masses and let the result take care of itself. And as much as that remains hard to square with the intensity of international sport, the reason for this approach became abundantly clear throughout February. It's been a while since a group of Englishmen have enjoyed playing Test cricket so much, and even longer since the results have been this good. The two could not be more linked.
It is why McCullum asked the group to convene in New Zealand two weeks before the first Test at Mount Maunganui, despite settling for just a two-day warm-up match in Hamilton. His plan, which he workshopped in Abu Dhabi ahead of December's Pakistan series, was to replicate the sort of off-field VIP treatment he had seen work wonders in the IPL.
Players not involved in the South Africa ODIs flew out as early as February 27 and were treated to a day of golf in Auckland before heading to the South Island for a week in Queenstown and Arrowtown. Even as cricket entered the agenda in Hamilton, McCullum, who lives an hour or so away near the town of Matamata, went into overdrive on tour-guide duties, with recommendations of things to do and places to visit for players and media. Understandably, only the former got an invite to the barbecue hosted at his place that Sunday afternoon, which was originally supposed to be day three of the warm-up match against an NZC XI at Seddon Park.
"It's been busy," McCullum said at the time. "A lot of demands on me. It's not one of my fortes, either, organising things." But it was an important discomfort to endure for the greater good.
Broad, on his fifth tour of New Zealand, spoke of this being the most he had seen of the country beyond "cricket grounds and airports". "It has been the most enjoyable ten days I have had pre-tour in my whole career, which is Baz's mantra."
Broad's words, along Anderson's smile, highlight a rejuvenation. It's one thing for newcomers to be enamoured by the trappings of playing cricket at Test level. But for the two men who have been here on more occasions than all but a handful of long-retired legends, it's a handy reminder of what a privilege this career truly is.
That manifested itself in different ways. For all the extra-curricular activities on offer, England's training sessions were often so intense that the local net bowlers spent most of their time watching from the sidelines rather than offering support, with batters keen to be tested by coaches slinging down from 18 yards instead of club players from 22.
When Stokes decided upon picking Anderson, Broad and Ollie Robinson in consecutive matches - with confirmation of their fitness coming via text message on the morning before the Wellington Test - it was a statement in two parts. All three bowlers, no matter how established, wanted to show they could be trusted to go back-to-back ahead of a summer where they'll be asked to do that with six Tests in 60 days. And that if Matthew Potts and Olly Stone were to be selected, it would be because they were in the best XI rather than as understudies. It was a far cry from previous eras where players were earmarked for specific matches rather than looking at the wares and picking the best team for right now.
Therein lies perhaps the true benefit of this shift among the group as a whole. There are no clear cliques, and an appreciation of the importance of looking out for one another, whether it's celebrating Harry Brook setting records or getting around Zak Crawley who is enduring more tough periods. And yet those in the XI are desperate to stay where they are.
It was after the series that McCullum allowed himself to speak openly about the Ashes on the horizon. For the players, who had always had it in their mind's eye, it was almost a sense of relief.
England's next Test outing is against Ireland, but Australia are the real acid test. McCullum and Stokes have created a brilliant thing, re-engaging the English public with a format that - until the start of last summer - had been going through the motions and moving further from the national consciousness.
Now, though, we will find out how robust the principles of enjoyment and carefree play are, in a series when the individual's internal emotions will be harder to shield. All this is easier when you're winning a lot, and occasionally losing in style.
So much of the messaging had been to enjoy the pressure, enjoy the struggle, enjoy the days in the dirt, enjoy the grind. The hope from Stokes and McCullum is they have given their charges the confidence to go into the next few months enjoying the anticipation and anxiety of being England's best hope of winning the urn in eight years.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo