England are alive again. Their startling renaissance was confirmed in the grandest manner at the climax to a stirring one-day series which possessed the most elusive quality of all memorable productions: it left you wanting more.
Whether this joyous conviction and skill can now be harnessed to the most pressing business of the summer will not be known for a month or so. But while Australia and the Ashes represent an entirely different proposition, this was the perfect entrée.
Of the team which created an improbable last-gasp victory on Saturday to take the series against New Zealand by 3-2, only three, four at most, can be expected to face Australia in the first Test in a little more than two weeks. This goes beyond personnel, however. This is about mood, belief and perseverance.
It is as if somebody, everybody, connected with England had sat down some time in the last few weeks and said to themselves and anyone else who would listen: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” If it worked for Howard Beale in Network, it could work for a cricket team. Something had to change.
Thus it was that when England slumped to 45 for 5 at Chester-le-Street as the sun at last broke through on a murky evening the day before the summer solstice, their target of 192 to win was distant but not unattainable. This England would keep going, this England would not let this remarkable series fade away in anti-climax. This England had yet another new unlikely hero in Jonny Bairstow, hot foot from the Yorkshire production line as replacement wicketkeeper-batsman.
There was not the sheer overload of runs that had marked the first four matches and brought a record aggregate for a five-match series and scored at 7.2 an over (in England, home of the moving ball, of all places). But there were enough of them to provide compelling drama.
New Zealand had made 283 for 9 from 50 overs, the sublime Kane Williamson again to the fore. After a rain delay which came close to causing abandonment, England needed 192 from 26. It seemed unbalanced in terms of the pro rata runs per over but it turned out to be statistically rigorous. No room for sloppy sentiment in this sort of deduction. That can come later in reflecting on the performance.
Bairstow was brilliant. He has not been well treated by England and but for an aborted match in Ireland in May this was his first appearance since playing in the last Ashes Test in Sydney 18 months ago. That was as forgettable as this was memorable.
In Sam Billings, another wicketkeeper but also a slam-dunk fielder, he found a rumbustious partner, and together they hauled England back into it at a lick. There had been a misguided approach at the start as England, looking at the mountain they had to climb, decided they had better try to sprint recklessly up the steep initial slopes.
Lying in wait to snare them was the left-arm spin of young Mitchell Santner, who took three wickets in seven balls. The thought occurred that he might not be the last Mitchell to foil England this season, with Messrs Johnson and Starc lying in wait.
But New Zealand had difficulties of their own. There was the matter of the three powerplay overs which, in a curtailed match, can be taken at the end of the innings, and they also had to fit in the improbable debutant Andrew Mathieson, who had been playing club cricket in Devon until a few days earlier.
Bairstow and Billings did not by and large try to hit the sixes which had studded the series. The Riverside ground is a big playing area – even with ropes five metres or so in – and Bairstow is not an effortless aerial hitter. But his placement was superb, as was his eye for a four. Billings was nerveless.
Like England before them, New Zealand dropped catches. If England are to have a chance in the Ashes they really have to rectify this. On 39, Bairstow inside-edged to the left of wicketkeeper Luke Ronchi, who reacted late. On 56, crucially, he was put down by Santner at third man juggling the ball from an upper cut. Santner had been winning the game and now he had lost it.
It was difficult to grasp quite what England had done as poor Mathieson, who took a wicket with his first ball, conceded 17 in the penultimate over for his side to lose. Triumph had turned its back on him too.
But almost as soon as Bairstow had propelled England home by three wickets with six balls to spare thoughts turned to their next assignment. Australia have already arrived; their first match is on Thursday. They will not be fearful exactly, not yet, but they will have taken note.Reuse content