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Match Analysis

Thrills lead to spills as England fail to make their attacking gusto stick

Intent aplenty from England's bowlers, but four catches go astray to derail their efforts

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
England's slip cordon react to a missed chance on a day when their attacking instincts went unsupported in the field  •  Getty Images

England's slip cordon react to a missed chance on a day when their attacking instincts went unsupported in the field  •  Getty Images

In the 44th over of the first day's play at Trent Bridge, James Anderson sent down a slightly overpitched delivery in the channel outside off stump. After a morning session in which England's bowlers had striven largely in vain to find lateral movement, despite some encouraging cloud cover and a grassy pitch, the ball started to do something for them mid-afternoon. Anderson gave this one every opportunity to swing, but it was a touch too full and Tom Blundell crashed it through point for four.
In times gone by, this shot would have trundled out to the fielder in the deep, and Blundell would have got off the mark with a single rather than a boundary. The strategy of "bowling dry", of keeping things tight and waiting for the opposition batters to make a mistake, underpinned England's rise to No. 1 in the rankings back in 2010-11. But that is not the way they roll, not anymore.
Anderson, at the time, was bowling to a 5-4 field - with four of the five men on the off side positioned either in the slips or at gully. The only time his captain, Ben Stokes, considered posting a cover sweeper was when the spinners were bowling during late afternoon, as Blundell and Daryl Mitchell settled into a significant stand together for the second Friday running.
Under the guidance of new head coach Brendon McCullum, this England Test team is all about packing the cordon, putting men back on the hook, and bringing in a leg gully (extra points if you can do all three at once). As Stuart Broad put it before the first Test of the series: "The mindset is how we get the batter to make a mistake quicker: how do we apply pressure quicker? If we can bowl a team out in 85 overs going at 3.3 an over, compared to 120 at 2.5 ... that's a better option as it speeds the game up for our batters."
The potential drawback, of course, is that speeding up the game can invite a loss of control. Tearing around the supermarket trying to chuck all of your shopping in the trolley at once, in order to maximise time spent drinking piña coladas by the barbecue afterwards, might sound like a good idea but will probably lead to a call over the tannoy for a clean-up on aisle five.
Cleaning up is what England were hoping to do after Stokes won the toss and asked New Zealand - a team shorn of their captain and best batter, Kane Williamson - to bat first. Instead, their plans were left in something of a mess as New Zealand marched past 300 for the loss of just four wickets.
Jon Lewis, England's bowling coach, summed up the thinking afterwards: "I think the most important thing about the toss was that it was the aggressive play. We were coming out to try and bowl New Zealand out, put them into bat and make the aggressive play after last week."
Attack, never mind the neat aphorism, is not usually the best form of defence. But attack is the best form of attack, and that is what McCullum's England are into. Their first day of Test cricket under the new regime had brought 17 wickets at Lord's - and darn tootin', the carnage might just as well continue here, on a ground that has a reputation as one of England's most swing-friendly.
But then… the Dukes barely budged off the straight for the first couple of hours, and New Zealand rattled along at around four an over for much of the day. The opening partnership was worth 84, and England had barely created a chance, before Stokes brought himself on and finally produced the breakthrough. Anderson struck next ball, although the embarrassed grin told you plenty about the half-tracker Tom Latham had just swatted to midwicket.
Perhaps it is wrong to focus on England's intent, when in reality it was simply their execution that was off. Broad seemed to realise this when starting up a new spell from the Radcliffe Road End after lunch. New Zealand had scored 20 boundaries during the morning session, and Devon Conway stroked a couple more through the covers as Broad floated up the drive ball.
Playing on his home ground, potentially for the last time in an England shirt (there is no Test scheduled for Trent Bridge next year), Broad realised a more disciplined approach was in order. The gap at cover point was plugged and he settled into hammering away on a length outside off, deliberately geeing up the crowd once again and setting the tone for England's best spell with the ball.
Unfortunately, England's best spell with the ball was accompanied by their first blemishes in the field - at Lord's, remember, they didn't put a chance down. Broad should have been rewarded with the wicket of Henry Nicholls, but Zak Crawley threw himself across Joe Root and palmed away what would have been a straightforward catch for first slip. Nicholls also got away with gloving a Matthew Potts short ball in front of leg gully, Stokes the man who wasn't quite able to get to the chance.
But Stokes once again brought himself on to good effect, as England's aggressive harrying briefly looked like tipping the contest back their way. Nicholls and Conway fells to catches behind the wicket, and Stokes was able to bowl to Mitchell with five slips in the cordon. Had Root held on to a regulation outside edge when Mitchell had made just 3, with the debutant Michael Bracewell and a fairly long tail to come, England might well have carried the day.
"We're choosing at the moment to take the aggressive option, and be courageous with what we do," Lewis said. "At times in games, you'll see with bat and ball, we might come up against a period of time when it doesn't go quite our way. But what I did like about today was the areas the guys bowled, especially after lunch, I thought we looked a real threat in that middle session. As the day went on, I thought we worked incredibly hard to get the wickets we deserved, and we could easily have bowled them out for 250."
Shortly after tea, Potts pitched the ball up outside off and Blundell again went for the drive: this time a thick outside-edge flew through the vacant third slip for four. Stokes reinforced the cordon two balls later, but the chance had gone. Later, Blundell edged Broad neatly between the unmoving Crawley and Jonny Bairstow at second and third slip, to the bowler's evident displeasure. England's positive talk is laudable, but backing it up with action will be key to the McCullum blueprint's success.

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick