England’s last two great Test victories have ended the same way. One of the world’s best fast bowlers charges in. Ben Stokes stands tall, crunching through cover point for four. The crowd goes wild. At Trent Bridge in 2022, just as at Headingly in 2019. But there the similarities end. During England’s implausible triumph against Australia, Stokes played an innings of untold gumption, guts and glorious hitting. But he was backed into a corner on that day, he alone with just a spectacle wiping Jack Leach for company, rescuing an otherwise subsiding team. Stokes believed, but there was almost no time for him to do anything else. He was already in no man’s land. It is much harder to summon the courage to charge over the top in the first place, and to then keep doing it when offered a new trench to lay low in.
At Trent Bridge, all the England XI joined him in earning the kind of triumph that Test Cricket does not throw up often. Alex Lees, an opener who seemed nervous to hit the ball off the square in the West Indies, carved the first two balls of the chase for four and crashed 12 off the first over. It was a statement of intent that survived Zak Crawley edging to the slips, Ollie Pope nicking a beauty and Joe Root – seemingly impossibly given recent form – miscuing a return catch to the excellent Trent Boult. When Lees departed, it left Jonny Bairstow, a man under pressure for his place in the face of Harry Brook’s form, and Ben Stokes together in the middle.
The tail was long. There were plenty of runs required and the rate was still at fours. The crowd, many taking advantage of Nottinghamshire CC’s inspired move to offer free tickets, looked gloomy. A couple of wickets and the match would be New Zealand’s to lose. Pessimism is understandable for anyone who has followed England around recently. Perhaps, people muttered, they should begin to block? So much for that.
There’s a hole in this management’s dictionary where that word has been torn out. Boring. Bland. Banal. They’ve gone too. Only the good words are left. Brendan. Ben. Bairstow. Belligerent. Ballsy. Brutal. Brilliant. Barnstorming. Bedlam.
England’s new coach, Brendan McCullum, a bludgeoner of the highest order in his own right has spoken movingly about how Test Cricket needs not just a strong England but an entertaining one. When he took the job, Baz, as the former black cap is known, spelled out his theory.
“Test cricket needs England to be strong, competitive and playing a watchable style of cricket. If not, it is in big trouble. I think Test cricket has been on a slightly downward path and the only people who can change that really are England. The appreciation of Test cricket in this part of the world, the history.”
Fast forward a fortnight and England’s play in two tests, but particularly in this glorious assault at Trent Bridge, will certainly have been appreciated in England and abroad, albeit perhaps not in McCullum’s home country.
This England win was the perfect antidote to years of timid cricket. Just last year, against the same opposition, England turned down a smaller chase in more overs. True, that ground didn’t have quite such an obligingly short square boundary, but England may well have gone for it here anyway. Bairstow and Stokes had margin for error.
Such at least was Stokes’ implication when he said afterwards that England were either going to win or lose the game. A year ago they didn’t consider winning. At Trent Bridge, there was no middle ground. For much of the day, Winviz – cricket’s result predictor – was late to the party. Its historical data could not account for England’s unprecedented disdain for the draw. That contempt was all the more staggering given the position of the series. If England were behind, chasing the game so maniacally might have been understandable. One up in a three match series? Most of the teams who have ever played Test cricket would have been shutting up shop in the first innings let alone the second. The draw is an important part of this format’s charm, the third result that prevents games from falling into binary and predictable states. Even in the darkest moment, teams hold out hope of a defiant rear-guard. In more balanced matches too, as this one, it is part of a regularly shifting equation that contributes to the drama. But there are draws and there are draws. England’s non chase last year was the worst of its kind. You sense this England team will only ever accept the latter. They might stumble towards a draw when circumstances demand it of them, but they seem to have resolved never to seek one out.
Cricket’s oldest and greatest format is not supposed to be played like this. Batters aren’t supposed to hit reverse scoops for six on the second ball of a day. They aren’t supposed to score almost a hundred in boundaries. At one point, after tea, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow scored 179 in exactly 20 overs, more than England have made on four of the last five occasions they’ve set a target in cricket’s shortest format. That isn’t supposed to be possible, especially against a team who won the World Test Championship only a year ago.
For all that we rejoice in England’s newfound aggression, there will be days when it isn’t like this. When they go for broke and get broken. When the pitch has more demons and such expansive strokeplay moves beyond reckless to ridiculous. When England have to bow to conditions and play another way.
What they signalled at Trent Bridge though was that they won’t bow down any longer to any opposition, or to themselves. If Headingly was a freak one off, the aggression of Trent Bridge does feel more repeatable, because England have no plans to change their newfound mentality.
In the aftermath of the match, McCullum spoke about England being ready to test the limits of where they could go. As they do, they might just test the limits of what this extraordinary format can offer