England hang in there to ride out first major test of new principles

Ben Stokes reacts on the field
July 01, 2022

Principles don't really become your principles just like that. You don't just get to walk into a shop and pick a principle off the shelf, plug in and press play. It needs to scoped, whittled, and honed before it is in any fit shape to be a foundation of your ethos.

Above all else, it needs to be robustly tested, even knocked around a bit to see if it can withstand the harsher moments. That way you know it's of real substance. The reason the All Blacks have a "no d***heads" policy is because, after a lot of experimenting, they realised they weren't winning much with d***heads.

This England men's Test team are on the other end of that spectrum. In it for each other, expressive, some tactics, seemingly more vibes. Three empathic victories over New Zealand this last month has given them a renewed belief, which has been wedded to a sense they are bringing the noise to Test cricket and waking up the neighbours.

Armed with a heightened faith in their ability and self-regard, they charged into the first day of this fifth Test against India, and looked good for the hype. They adhered religiously to the playbook, even if it was only drawn up a month ago: winning the toss and electing to bat last, packing the cordon, encouraging bowlers to use the open spaces to their advantage and entice misjudgements. Within 28 overs of play, they had India 98 for 5.

A returning James Anderson led the way with three wickets, but missed out on picking up his all-time great sparring partner, Virat Kohli, who was one of two to fall to Matthew Potts. The Durham quick is one of the poster boys of Bazball, and having removed Kane Williamson three times in the New Zealand series, he unsettled and then unpicked the former India captain. Not since Future has someone come on to the scene and immediately found himself attached to so many high-profile names on merit.

It was usually at this point that Daryl Mitchell and Tom Blundell got to work to bump up New Zealand's scores. And while their partnership averaged 120.7 across six innings, England were always able to maintain some semblance of control, and were even able to keep focusing on taking wickets. This time, however, as 98 for 5 became 320 for 5 in 38.3 overs, they found themselves needing to reassess. Those principles, still being recited for the sake of memory as much as meditation, looked like they might have to be abandoned, even if only for a moment. To bastardise a famous Mike Tyson quote, everyone's got five slips until you get Rishabh Pantsed in the face.

As India's one-man band of cavalier free-form jazz set about turning the day around, Ben Stokes did his best to maintain tack throughout. As much as the players truly believe in what Stokes and Brendon McCullum are pushing towards, it is only human to have a few doubts when an opposition batter is hitting you down the ground at will: sometimes for four, sometimes for six, sometimes with one hand, sometimes on one leg, sometimes even ending up flat on his back after.

Jack Leach, perhaps the most emboldened in the squad, with 10 wickets at Headingley achieved through not thinking about the negative of saving runs, had to regress on occasion. Having been forbidden from pushing a man back on the fence by Stokes just a week ago, he was allowed the cover, first by two-thirds then fully back when it became apparent that it did not matter where the fielder was stood.

The short-ball tactic also had a sense of defence about it. Stokes and Potts took on that workload in a bid to hurry Ravindra Jadeja or encourage Pant's ego to bring him down. Such was the manner in which both lefties played - particularly Pant, who was more than happy to indulge pull shots - that the leg side was reinforced to stem the flow. Even the fielding standards dropped, with usually sharp fielders diving over the odd boundary, and a couple of unnecessary, wayward launches towards the stumps that coughed up eight runs in overthrows.

Given the manner of the 222-run partnership, these moments were easy to understand. Human, in fact. A passage of play that was instigated to test your resolve and have you questioning how you've been doing things, especially if you've only been doing them like this for a month.

Vindication, however, came from an unlikely source. Joe Root tossed one up above Pant's eyes which had spotted the vacant regions down the ground like Wile E. Coyote clocking the Road Runner. Pant threw his head back and thought of the 150, only to skew an edge for Crawley's third catch at slip. And with that, India's charge was halted, and England were back in it.

"It was a brave ball, I'll say that," England assistant coach Paul Collingwood said when speaking after stumps. "With two men up and having just been hit over his head, it was brave. Sometimes you need a bit of genius or bravery."

The wicket of Shardul Thakur means day two begins on 338 for 7: India, on balance, ahead but England more than able catch up if they start strongly on Saturday. "We can be happy with the day's work," Collingwood said. "Anything under 360, 370 would be a good result for us."

We will only know at the end of this match just how effective this late fightback was to England's cause. They rallied from 55 for 6 to win the previous Test against New Zealand, and here, for the first time in this new era, the bowlers were in a similar state of disarray. Such is the way in sport that our conclusions from this day will be wedded to the result, which is now a binary prospect given this England side's dislike for the draw.

Perhaps, though, this first day should be regarded as a microcosm of this whole period in general: one of trial and error, where winning is less important than the performance. As that goes on, there will be some corrections, as they were here. Encouraging opposition batters to play through point by leaving it vacant is a great way to coax a questionable bat angle for an edge, but can lead to easy singles to rotate the strike and relieve pressure. Keeping mid-on and mid-off up is effective for eventually drawing loose strokes but can lead to frazzled minds in the field and dampen even the most strong-willed spinner.

That being said, the thing to take away was that England did not lose sight of the bigger picture, and in turn wrestled back some initiative. There will be more times in the future when the pressure upon them will be even greater. By then, their resolve and those principles will be a little bit surer thanks to days like this.

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