Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The start of the 'new new' era

Tuesday, 26 May 2015
England's love affair with test cricket returned. Though it was just an 18-day gap between this test and the last in the West Indies, the outlook couldn't look much different. For all the drama off the pitch, the further damaged relationship between the ECB and the fans, sacked coaches and possibly players; the past five days proved that the cricket will always take centre stage. And in what a fashion.

Though after the first hour of the very first day, it looked like the misery was only set to continue. New Zealand showed straight away why they've had so much success over the past year, the fast bowling trio of Boult, Southee, and debutant Henry demolishing England's top order. There wasn't much the batsmen could do as they fell to 30/4, the top four crumbling away in the space of five overs to an excellent spell of bowling. The horror of Barbados was repeating itself. Yet rather than going into their shells, England fought back through Joe Root (98) and Ben Stokes (92). It was brilliant, counterattacking cricket - Root looking on top of the world with the bat in hand; Stokes scoring at nearly a run a ball, and a world away from the man who bagged a pair in his last test at Lord's. Both ultimately fell just short of their centuries, but they were innings that gave England hope. They could have as good as lost the match in that opening session but, along with innings from Buttler (67) and Ali (58), England recovered to a total of 389. Perhaps not an exceptional score, but certainly an exceptional recovery. And already the match had come alive, just one innings in.

But England still weren't on top, and New Zealand did even better when it was their turn with the bat. Martin Guptill scored 70 on his return to the test side after two years, Tom Latham scored 59. And dismissing those two in quick succession only brought Kane Williamson (132) and Ross Taylor (62) to the crease. If Joe Root can be listed as one of the batsmen who will surely be lighting up international cricket for the next ten years, then Kane Williamson is right there alongside him. He just looked in control from the word go, playing the ball late, finding the middle - and if there were ever any edges, he played with hands so soft it could never be a chance. Only 24 years old, it was already his tenth test century. And it was the cornerstone of the innings as New Zealand racked up 523, with further runs also coming from McCullum (a 38-ball 42) and Watling (61).

England had a 134-run deficit to overturn, and when Bell fell in the first over of the fourth day with England still 60 adrift, New Zealand looked a long way ahead. In that first hour of the day, they again bowled beautifully. It was a theme of the match - whilst the ball could do a lot, once the batsmen settled they could really take charge; and run rates throughout were close to four an over. What England needed though was a rock, and after struggling for so long, they can really say that their captain is back in business. Alastair Cook is a man that does best when he can lead from the front, and that is exactly what he did. He often played second fiddle as Root (84) and Stokes (101) were in the runs again, but really that is his job. Bat the whole day, be patient, and allow those players to express themselves whilst quietly accumulating a massive score. While Stokes rightly stole the headlines, Cook batted the whole day, an innings of 162.

But there's no denying that this match belonged to Ben Stokes. If his first innings 92 was a brilliant display of counterattacking cricket, then his century in the second innings was even better. 101 from just 92 balls. The fastest test century at Lord's. Stokes first really made his mark on the 2013/4 Ashes tour, but there had been more downs that ups since. It was here that he truly announced himself to the world, put his name down as a superstar. England have a love affair with all rounders, one that can perhaps put too much pressure on anyone who shows promise with bat and ball. Straight away they can be tagged as 'the new Botham', or 'the new Flintoff'. Stokes may be in a similar mould - able to hit it big and bowl it fast, and with a fiery personality to match - but instead he can just be 'the first Stokes'. There will still be ups and downs ahead - and chances are that he will be a player who frustrates England fans for many years to come, just as much as he pulls it out of the bag. But how England have needed that character - the one who empties the bars, the one lights up the crowd, that can turn a match around. Stokes has that bit of magic about him. And this felt like the start of something.

The match was turned on its head. New Zealand had 345 to chase - not an impossible task with their ability and firepower - or had the best part of a day to survive. But England were ascendant - both openers were soon dismissed for ducks in the first two overs, with Taylor following in the sixth for 8. Broad was back bowling near his best, Anderson was closing in on 400 test wickets. And even when New Zealand looked to be settling in again with Williamson, Stokes struck. He couldn't be kept out of the game. Williamson and McCullum were gone in consecutive deliveries, and New Zealand were 61/5; England truly on the charge now. Watling (59) and Anderson (67) did provide resistance, but England came through. A brilliant five days finished with a 124 run win for England, a result unthinkable an hour in on day one.

What a game test cricket is. This match had everything - memorable individual performances, real strong shows from both sides, the fight backs, beautiful knocks with the bat and spells with the ball, neither team ever ready to give in along the way, sell out crowds throughout, and all results possible on the final day. Both sides put their names on that famous honours board - Williamson and Boult (taking 5/85 in England's second innings, after four in their first) for New Zealand, Stokes and Cook for England; both sides had players making their debuts in a match they will never forget.

But, as an England fan, what came out of this match most of all was hope. While they've been steadily improving over this past year as a test side - the setback in the West Indies aside - this still felt like a special moment. A moment they needed, the moment to show that they can play that exciting, attacking cricket. To show that when they get put in difficult situations - as they were more than once in this match - that they can come out fighting as the best teams do, rather than meekly surrendering. A moment where they could reconnect with the fans, after all the recent drama with the ECB. And to show that they have players to capture the public's imagination, players who can become heroes. This match saw the clouds start to lift, and the future start to look bright once again.

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