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Match Analysis

England play the beautiful game as Ben Stokes embodies new-found positivity

Gamble on brand-new approach pays out big at first spin, says Vithushan Ehantharajah

At 2.23pm, as Tim Southee began his 19th over of the second innings. England needed 21 for victory: Joe Root was at the nonstriker's end on 80, Jonny Bairstow facing up with 60. And the chatter in the stands and on social media for those watching elsewhere was whether Root would make it to Test century number 28 or would Bairstow, having just registered the fastest half-century by any Test batter in England, chow down on the remainder leaving nothing for his former captain.
The result, by this point, was a foregone conclusion. As it had in been on the fourth evening when England were 183 for two, even before that when Root and Ollie Pope were into the guts of their work having joined up with a mildly precarious 51 for two on the board in pursuit of 296.
By 2.34pm, we had our answer, as Bairstow struck a four and then six to finish on 71, while Root had only managed six more. The only person helped to three figures was Blackcaps off spinner Michael Bracewell. Just 64 minutes after the delayed start of 1:30pm, the final 113 runs had been bashed about with ease, Root and Bairstow with 111 of them in a remarkable 14.3 overs.
It couldn't have ended any other way. Could it? Once you talk a big game, you've got to front up. But perhaps the biggest takeaway from the manner in which this third and final Test at Headingley was won, in keeping with the previous two at Lord's and Trent Bridge, was that it spoke more of conditioning than sticking to a promise.
It might have been nice for Pope to have been there at the end, and not even Bairstow could have trumped Pope's century had he done so. Alas he was only able to add a solitary run to his overnight score of 81 before losing his off stump to Southee. Even so, 82 is comfortably his highest score in the second half of a Test. His previous best in either the third or fourth innings had been his 20 not out during the Lord's refusal of 2021, when England had failed to go for a target go 273, also against New Zealand. They've chased higher three times in the last month alone.
In fact, England's 277 at Lord's, their 299 in Nottingham and now the 296 in Leeds are all in the top 12 of the team's highest-ever chases. And who knows how many more they may shoehorn into the list while in this mood. Not that they're in the record-breaking business, per se. "Yesterday, no one really even noticed the scoreboard about [New Zealand's] runs ahead," said a proud Ben Stokes in his press conference at stumps. "Because when it was our turn to bat we were always going to look to try and chase it down. When you're not worried about how many runs ahead, and you're just worried about taking wickets, it's obviously going to put you in a really good place."
We may never know quite how everyone has bought into this project individually at this point. But the sum of the whole has clearly been enough to carry each other over the threshold. Let's not forget: England were 55 for six after New Zealand posted 329, then 243 behind as Daryl Mitchell and Tom Blundell combined to blunt and frustrate yet again, with five second-innings wickets still to go.
Jack Leach spoke on day four that his ten-wicket haul came about how ridding his mind of negativity, whether that manifested itself as a defensive line or pushing the odd fielder back. At the other end of the spectrum is Zak Crawley, who finishes the series with an average of 14.50 and heads into this week's Test against India with unwavering support from those in the dressing-room and immeasurable doubt from countless outside.
Crawley may well go on to be the best control experiment imaginable, the means by which to check just how therapeutic the McCullum-Stokes axis truly is. Both back him unequivocally, to the extent that there was no thought put to replacing him in the squad for India, almost treating him a bit like a slot machine on the cusp of paying out big.
Right now, the example of Bairstow is the most applicable, even if he did arrive into the summer as the only batter besides the ubiquitous Root with two centuries already this year. But three innings into the series he had 25 runs to his name. Three innings later, it was 394 (at 78.8) and an absurd strike rate of 120.12. He was unlucky to miss out on the two gongs given out on Monday evening: despite 233 runs in the third Test, the player of the match award went to Leach, and the player of the series award to Root for scoring 396 across these fixtures.
There is no doubt, though, the man at the centre of it all is Stokes. He will go out of his way to avoid the credit, which goes back to his call for selfless cricketers when he first took the gig. And he has led the way in aggression these last few weeks, from the fields he sets, the two-step he's now incorporated into every attack on all bowlers, to his team talks, which at times have even caused McCullum to blush.
"I think he might have me covered to be honest," McCullum laughed to Sky, before revealing how Stokes came into the dressing-room at tea on day four, by which point England were already on course for their target of 296 with 40 overs remaining in the day. "He's like, well we'll just knock it off tonight." When McCullum went to interject, Stokes went on: "Well, you get the extra half hour as well, it's 47 overs, so that's only seven an over. Let's see how we get on".
They had to come back the next day, of course, though they did not need much more than an hour to get it done in the end. With that, Stokes' England became the first Test side to successfully chase targets of over 250 three times in a single series. All three of them canings for the inaugural World Test Champions.
Truth be told, this might be as good as it gets. The reason for this approach to Test cricket is purely down to the fact that everything England had tried previously produced the same, lacklustre results. And its crux is simply to embolden streaky players and, ultimately, kid them into not regarding themselves as streaky at all. Chasing, as tough as it is usually regarded, feeds into the clarity, of knowing exactly what you need to get to win. Setting up a match and having to bowl a team out to win will be an altogether different test. And surely no opposition will be as obliging as the Blackcaps have been here.
How long this lasts, how robustly it holds up to higher quality questioning and harsh criticism remains to be seen. But as they stayed in the home dressing-room at Headingley to cheer to each other's successes ahead of another night out on the town, it is clear this is a group of cricketers expressing themselves, having fun and winning while doing so. In any walk of life, that is a beautiful place to be.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo