Ben Stokes’ new world order gets sobering reality check against India
At one point during an interminable and broken afternoon at Edgbaston, the camera zoomed in on the array of listless faces on the England balcony. Perhaps this, rather than the swishing blade of Rishabh Pant or Jasprit Bumrah, was the first big test of England’s vivid new approach to Test cricket. Whether with the bat or in the field, this is a team that feeds on momentum, the buzz of a live audience, that lives for the vibe and the thrill, that wants to do everything in a hurry. So what happens when the heavens open with India leading the series 2-1, a deficit of 356 still on the board and much of the crowd already sloping off home?
Then again, maybe that’s just the old negativity talking. Maybe the England of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum were fervidly formulating yet another bold stratagem. Attack the rain. Run into the downpour. Certainly you could imagine Stokes himself itching to get out there and show the weather who was boss. Obviously you’ve got to respect precipitation’s record at this level. But like any meteorological phenomenon, put it under pressure and it cracks. And really, when you break it down, is there really any difference between wetness and dryness?
Finally, shortly before 6pm, the last of the rain clouds finally drifted off in the vague direction of Sutton Coldfield and under cautiously blue skies England’s first innings could finally resume. It was a weird and sobering hour, one that for all the home side’s bad intentions ended with an umbrella of close fielders stationed around the bat, with England counting down the minutes, with the Indians in the crowd making all the noise. Even the Edgbaston crowd – often the best in the world at 11am and the worst in the world at 7pm – had had its brusqueness and fervour drained from it, and was only about half-full for the denouement.
Here, perhaps, was the starkest illustration of the difference between attacking intent and winning intent, between a culture that has been superimposed and a culture that has been hardwired, between the team that England are now and the team they are trying to be. And as England’s top order again crumbled in the face of a relentless pace-bowling assault, it was a reminder too that no amount of motivational branding can overturn the simple advantage of better cricketers playing better cricket.
After all, India have been playing a positive brand of cricket for four years, not four weeks. There is a texture and a depth to them, a team that can accommodate both the dash of Shubman Gill and the circumspection of Cheteshwar Pujara, that can absorb the loss of a captain and vice-captain and not feel materially weakened. They can sit in and take the game deep, or they can take it away from you in a session. They can mesmerise an opponent with spin or blow them away with pace. They can play all games in all conditions. Above all they feel no need to reaffirm their identity or remind anyone of their job.
You can still detect that sense of projection in England’s players: the way many of them still seem to be trying to convince themselves as well as us. You could see it in the frenzied swishing of Zak Crawley and Ollie Pope outside off-stump, a natural freedom that somehow looks neither natural nor free. You could even see it in some of the skittish and frankly abysmal strokes Joe Root played before eventually getting out: not so much Root as Root trying to play the character of Root, one of the world’s most nuanced and adaptable batters playing a brainless game of hit-and-thrash.
And really it was the basic stupidity that was the most notable feature here. England were stupid-good against New Zealand. So far in this Test they have been stupid-bad, and if you think one excuses the other then a cursory look at India’s record – 19 series wins out of 24, won all over the world – offers a handy point of contrast. In 30 Tests, plenty of opponents have tried to hit Bumrah for four runs an over. Excluding spells of under 10 overs, only one has managed it. If ever there were a time for caution against the new ball, this was probably it.
But perhaps England aren’t quite there yet. Perhaps in time they will develop a weight of intellect and strategy behind a plan that right now seems to consist solely of belting the ball, hunting for wickets and claiming that you’ve somehow changed cricket. It feels good, and perhaps at this accursed juncture in English cricket perhaps feeling good is enough for now. In the meantime, England are 84 for five facing 416, with an extremely long tail. Try to buzz your way out of that.