A match in which both sides score over 500 is often a bit of a bore ending in a dull draw. Not so at Trent Bridge this week. Much has been said and written about the new spirit in the England camp under the McCullum/Stokes regime, and I don’t question that.
Nevertheless, the credit for this remarkable Test at Trent Bridge should go first to the Nottinghamshire groundsman who produced a wicket which invited batsmen to play strokes.
This was to be the heart of my column, or so I thought at the beginning of the week. The idea was sparked by comparing Joe Root’s centuries here at Trent Bridge and last week at Lord’s.
Both were splendid pieces of art and craft, the work of a master at the height of his powers. One doesn’t perhaps think of Root as a maestro like the greatest of his Yorkshire predecessors, Len Hutton, but this is because there remains something boyish about him. A happy relish for the game, itself astonishing after bearing the burden of England’s batting for half-a-dozen years as captain.
Nevertheless, a maestro is what he is, and like Hutton in his prime, one that can play whatever sort of innings the pitch and the state of the match, or a series, demands.
At Lord’s, his hundred in the fourth innings secured a win; at Trent Bridge, his first-innings hundred made the ultimate victory possible. There was the same quality of mind — of intelligence — evident in both innings.
Yet technically, they were different, and here is where thanks are due to the Nottinghamshire groundsman and the fast and true wicket he had produced. At Lord’s, Root played mostly off the back foot. All great batsmen, it used to be said, are back-foot players.
One of the first great theorists of the game, the Indian Prince Ranjitsinhji, instructed batsmen, “Play back or drive”. Few are good enough to obey his command.
Root is one of the happy few. Root, like Hutton before him, can do so. Moreover, like Hutton again, when the ball is swinging, he checks his drive and plays it late and square on the offside.
At Trent Bridge, however, recognizing that the wicket was true, he was driving off the front foot through extra-cover or in the V between wide mid-off and wide mid-on. It was delightful.
One has seldom seen him play with such freedom for some time, doubtless in part on account of the responsibility of being not only England’s captain but the only batsman with a Test average over 36.
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Still, this match will be remembered chiefly not for Root’s masterclass, but for Jonny Bairstow’s astonishing hitting, a power and sustained ferocity rarely seen in Test cricket.
I think it matched only in my memory of English batsmen by certain innings from Ian Botham, Kevin Petersen and, of course, Ben Stokes, England’s new captain and Bairstow’s partner in this destruction of the New Zealand attack. Extraordinarily, however, Baistow’s power and ferocity were such that Stokes was all but overshadowed.
I have been a fan of Bairstow’s ever since he first appeared, along with Root, in the Yorkshire team, but his career has been a bit more of a rollercoaster ride than Joe’s.
He has been in and out of the England team, not always, I think, well-treated by selectors and coaches. Sometimes he had kept wicket, sometimes not, and he can rarely have felt secure for long.
Fans have criticized him, and in the last couple of years, social media has been awash with posters declaring that his time in an England short is up. Curiously these critics have rarely observed that Bairstow’s Test Match batting record is much the same as Stokes’s. Meanwhile, Bairstow has become one of the best white-ball batsmen in the world; few question that.
Still, he came to these New Zealand Tests straight from the IPL and made low scores at Lord’s in the first innings at Nottingham. Another failure would undoubtedly have provoked loud cries of “enough” and demands he is replaced by the young Harry Brook, another Yorkshireman but one who has scarcely ever played with Bairstow.
I suspect the cries would have gone unheeded d because both McCullum and Stokes know what he is capable of — that is, an innings which can turn a match in a dozen or twenty overs, which is exactly what he did on Sunday.
After tea, when the result was still in the balance, New Zealand appraised the state of the game. It was likely that if Stokes and Bairstow batted through to the close, England would win. So Trent Boult, their best bowler, and Matt Henry bowled short and fast, inviting Bairstow to risk hooking or pulling into a field with three men out on the boundary. This was quite sensible.
Hooking or pulling a fast ball is always a risk when there are men waiting to catch a mishit. Bairstow, of course, accepted the challenge, and there was an extraordinary flourishing of sixes. The match was turned on its head in the space of a couple of so overs.
But it might so easily have been different. One less powerful and well-timed strike fell short of the boundary, and New Zealand might have won.
It was extraordinary, so extraordinary, that Bairstow all but broke what must be one of the longest-standing records in England’s Test Match history.
At The Oval in 1904, Gloucestershire’s Gilbert Jessop took only 75 balls to score a hundred against Australia; Bairstow’s hundred took one ball more. Not bad.
I like long-standing records, and so I am happy to think Jessop’s remains, though I would have been just as happy to see Jonny Bairstow match it. Jessop incidentally was at the crease for only 75 minutes, but they got through overs faster than they do now.
There was goodwill but some doubt when Brendan McCullum was appointed England’s head coach; doubt because he has little experience of coaching. But the head coach’s job is surely first selection and, second, setting the mood. There are other batting and bowling and fielding coaches to deal with the technical stuff or, often, to offer no more than a quiet word of advice.
I never tire of the story of the young apprentice rowing coach who once asked Steve Fairbairn, the Australian who coached the Cambridge Boat race crew, if he might accompany him along the towpath so that he might learn from his experience and wisdom.
Afterwards, he admitted to being a bit disappointed.” You don’t seem to say much”, he said. “Too right, mate, but I stop any bloody fools from saying anything.”
I guess McCullum is a coach in the Fairbairn style.