Sunday, 21 June 2015

Turning the corner

Sunday, 21 June 2015
Based on their previous ODI displays this year, the thought of England winning a series over the World Cup finalists would have seemed laughable. Someone saying England would be playing a style of aggressive, no-fear cricket, capable of scoring 400 or chasing down 350, might be thought to come from some strange parallel universe. And yet it was real. More sudden transformations are hard to come by.

The whole series has been an absolute joy from both sides, a glorious festival of one day cricket right from the word go. While the scores were enough to make bowlers weep - batting records broken all around - it was hard to complain about an even contest between bat and ball when there were innings like these. England had Joe Root, scoring two centuries only to be overshadowed by flashier innings from his teammates; Jos Buttler, whose extraordinary abilities can barely be described; Eoin Morgan, back to his best after his own horror year; and Jonny Bairstow, only in for one game but practically winning that by himself. New Zealand had probably had the best of them all in Kane Williamson, a man who seems to have no weakness, a robot who dismissing for just 50 felt like a great achievement. There too was Ross Taylor, scoring his own two centuries and with the two forming a partnership it seemed impossible to break, both just making it all look so easy. McCullum may have had a quiet series, but it didn't stop a mountain of runs being racked up by either side. The run rate for the entire series reached a massive 7.15, a total of 3151 runs scored across the five games. 

Of course, it all had to come down to the final game; the festival had to have a grand finale. And it was finally a moment where the bowlers fared somewhat better - after four matches where first innings scores exceeded 300 every time, New Zealand could only reach 283/9 (and that helped by some lusty blows from the lower order). The rain came, reducing England's total to 192 from 26. While the run rate had risen, the total still looked very gettable, especially considering the standards of the series. But for all the talk of a 'new England', a sign of the old remained - a good, old fashioned collapse. They are a team on a learning curve, and here the balance between 'positive' and 'reckless' veered too far towards the latter. Yet rather than going into their shells, they came back fighting. With Buttler absent through injury two other young wicketkeepers took the spotlight, Bairstow (83*) and Billings (41) getting the recovery underway in a partnership of 80. And then Bairstow carried England home. He may not have been in the original squad, but he stole the show and with it the series for England. 

It's been a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for England, even in defeat still putting in the kind of performances everyone had been craving. The public, too, responded - after the first match the grounds were practically sellouts. The fresh mindset has been clear to see - long gone is that team that looked so afraid at the World Cup, inhibited and wary; now they are going and enjoying themselves, going for their shots and just attacking. It got them into trouble at times, this final match and the third particularly - 288/6 becoming 302 all out with five overs remaining - but at the same time it was good to see them really going for it, showing that self belief and not settling for a lesser score. Sure, it won't always come off, but they're a young team and will learn from experience. Obviously they haven't turned into world beaters overnight and we mustn't forget that, but even when there are times when they do frustrate us (and no doubt, there will be many), with this new approach it will always be worth watching.

Personally, I can't remember the last time I so looked forward to seeing England playing ODI cricket. It had felt like other teams were sprinting forwards, and England were standing still. Always the same outdated tactics, and players making waves on the domestic scene who offered that something different always being left on the sides. But this series has been a joy to watch with both teams. New Zealand have continued to play that attacking cricket that has brought them so much recent success, and it seemed to spur England on to greater heights too, bringing them into the modern age. It feels a shame that there's now only one match left to play on this tour after what we've been treated to over the past month. Every single game has left us wanting more. Long may this new age continue. 

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