I remember watching Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes batting together, pounding it all over the ground and thinking to myself this really was the start of a new era. It was 2016 in Cape Town, when the pair put on 399 and hit 13 sixes between them. Trevor Bayliss was a relatively recent appointment as England head coach and we were seeing the impact of his arrival and maybe also the effect of the Indian Premier League.
Fast-forward six years and we are at the start of another new era and everyone is talking about the same two batters after the pair of them – and particularly Bairstow on the final afternoon – swung that fantastic second Test against New Zealand in England’s direction.
I have bumped into so many people who were absolutely bowled over with England’s entertaining display at Trent Bridge and it has been a shot in the arm for Test cricket. The first two games have been excellent entertainment: when Rob Key, the managing director of England men’s cricket, told fans to strap themselves in and enjoy the ride he wasn’t kidding.
Stokes has already proved that as captain he is not only capable of talking the talk but of walking the walk. It takes a remarkable effort to concede more than 500 runs in the first innings and still be thinking only about victory. I played under two people – Mike Gatting and Adam Hollioake – whose focus was similar and who only thought about how their team could win a game no matter what position they were in. It is an approach that gives players real clarity and that they really enjoy. That is also the message we are hearing from the England dressing room.
The question is, how long will this be maintained? The new mindset is a very positive one, but it will be easier to play aggressive cricket in home conditions than in, say, Asia and England’s next away Test series is in Pakistan. By then, though, some of the players may have completely redefined themselves.
Bairstow got the headlines, but you could easily argue Alex Lees and Ollie Pope played equally important innings. Lees looked terribly inhibited in the Caribbean earlier this year but at Trent Bridge set the tone. By hitting three boundaries off the first four deliveries of the fourth innings he very much led the way for England.
Pope’s first-innings 145 showed he may be settling into his new role at No 3. I bumped into him last Friday at the Oval, where he was playing a Twenty20 match for Surrey, and had an extremely encouraging conversation. He told me he didn’t feel that different in his new position and that he could go in and play his natural game. This bodes really well – if Pope can regularly perform at three England then have a wonderful, settled middle order to follow him.
It was an interesting decision to let Pope and Zak Crawley play T20 matches between Tests. Perhaps it was no surprise given Bairstow’s defence of playing the IPL as preparation for a Test summer, but its impact will depend on the individual. I saw Crawley play for Kent at Lord’s on Sunday when he never quite got going and I wonder if with his technique, and his habit of getting out to loose shots in Test cricket, the decision is more likely to create problems than to solve them.
Bairstow is 32 and has had time to grow as a player and as a person. All of that will help him when he has to switch formats. He has nine centuries in 85 Tests with three in his past six – he is at the peak of his powers. When you talk about the players receiving a clear message from the coach and captain Bairstow will really benefit from that. He is someone who doesn’t have consistent routines in practice, who can be quite emotional, and when the adrenaline starts to flow he can thrive or he can lose control. At Trent Bridge, he was magnificent, showed great courage and skill to take on the short ball and within a short period of play he ripped the heart out of New Zealand and transformed the run chase.
People have contrasted England’s approach to their task at Trent Bridge to that at Lord’s against New Zealand last year, when they made no attempt to chase 273. The situations, though, were not at all similar: there was a very different opening pair in Rory Burns and Dom Sibley and the ball was swinging prodigiously. They were also facing a well-prepared and motivated side that was chasing the World Test Championship trophy. Like the two run chases, the difference between last year’s New Zealand side and this one is like chalk and cheese.
England have also benefited from the emergence of Matt Potts, who has done incredibly well after being exposed for the first time to the big crowds and media attention that come with Test cricket.
There are rumours Jimmy Anderson will be rested for Thursday’s third Test at Headingley, which perhaps explains why Jamie Overton has been added to the squad, where he joins his brother, Craig. He’s a big fellow who gets the ball through quickly, hits the middle of the pitch hard and can unsettle players. If the ball doesn’t swing or move England could really use the height, pace and bounce that Overton delivers.