England has changed since I first watched Test cricket and cricket fans reflect the change. They no longer watch the play in silence or near-silence, as if they were theatre. The cricketers respond. They leap about, hug each other and even run halfway across the ground with bats waved aloft to celebrate a century. It’s a far cry from the distant days when a veteran Yorkshire bowler would tell a young fielder who threw himself about to “stop making an exhibition of yourself, lad.”
As for the folk who post their opinions on screens, any notion of English reserve or moderation has gone for a burton. Dryden’s judgement on the Whig politician, Shaftesbury, anticipated the modern English cricket fan by more than three hundred years. “Railing and praising were his usual themes,/ And both, to show his judgement, in extremes”.
Six months ago, after being thumped by Australia and then a dreary and dismal three-Test series in the West Indies, England’s cricketers were in the stocks or the pillory. In a curious way, the fickle fans even seemed to revel in the team’s repeated failures. Some indulged merely in insult, others, more agreeably, in gallows humour.
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But now, in the flash of an eye, everything had changed. The new conductor, the genial Man of Kent (or Kentishman) Rob Key, has waved his wand, summoned up the Kiwi coach Brenden McCullum, awarded the captaincy to Ben Stokes and hey-presto, England have won a series against New Zealand 3-0. Even the deposed captain Joe Root played with a smile on his face, making three centuries and averaging 99, while his Yorkshire mate since Colts cricket days, Jonny Bairstow has hit two marvellous centuries, scoring fast and peppering the boundary, becoming the darling of the moment, praised even by many who not long ago sourly said they hoped never to see him in the Test team again.
Honestly, it’s been like the transformation scene in a pantomime. Everyone is buying into the idea of this New England, even that most astute and sensible of cricket writers Mike Atherton. Well, we shall see. As I write, England has won the toss at Edgbaston and in the modern fashion sent India in to bat: preparation for a fourth-inning galloping run chase?
India’s response has been to send Cheteshwara Pujara, one of the surviving masters of the art of defensive batting, in to open. In contrast, England has retained Zak Crawley — Mr One Big Innings in Ten — as one of their opening pair. He’s a great survivor in the selection room, if not often at the wicket. Discarded openers like Sam Robson and Adam Lyth, both still making county centuries, must look on bewildered and forgivably jealous.
The New Zealand series was splendid, a delight to watch. No wonder so many have been carried away. England, like Steve Waugh’s Australians 20 and more years ago rattled along at four runs an over and more. Victories were boldly snatched in every match from what looked like the gaping jaws of defeat. Terrific.
Time perhaps for an Old Hack to sound a sour note. Yes, the batting was at times ridiculously good. One felt sympathy for anyone bowling to Barstow in this rich vein of form. Some Golden Age bowler — I forget which — reputedly said of bowling to Victor rumper: “I puts the ball where I likes, and Victor, he puts it where he likes.” It must have felt like that bowling to Bairstow or indeed to Joe Root and, if more briefly, Ben Stokes.
Yet the truth is that, except for the excellent Trent Boult, the New Zealand cricket team’s bowling was pretty poor and asked few difficult questions. Tim Southie was a shadow of the fine, near-great, bowler he as been, and when the lofty Kyle Jamieson, departed injured midway in the second Test, Boult had no real support. The spin bowling was inviting, never threatening. Moreover, Kane Williamson’s handling of what passed for his attack and his field settings were poor. India’s attack will be more dangerous and one can’t but wonder how the all-guns-blazing style of English batting would fare against Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins.
England’s bowling gets only a Beta mark. New Zealand ran up some big scores and the repeated difficulties England found in trying to break a succession of partnerships between Daryl Mitchell and the wicket-keeper Blundell were just a bit ominous. Still, not to worry: Anderson and Broad are still getting good batsmen out. The young Durham quick, Matthew Potts, looks the genuine article, and Jack Leach, intelligently handled by Stokes, has begun to look like a genuine Test Match spinner.
This India Test, being a one-off, may tell us little. A more severe examination will be offered by South Africa in the three Test series to follow. England will surely continue to attack with both bat and ball, but there will just as surely be days when the “New England” look a bit tattered, batsmen coming and going from the pavilion and bowlers struggling to take wickets or impose control. Interesting times lie ahead. Will the fans keep faith, or will they prove fickle as ever?.