England vs New Zealand: A series to savour... and a turning point?

England must shrug aside yesterday’s defeat and play the aggressive, unrestrained  brand of cricket they have shown against New Zealand against the Australians

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The Independent Online

Perhaps this will be seen as the moment when everything changed. In decades to come it is possible that we will look back on the early summer of 2015 and be able to say: "That was when English cricket finally woke up and got it."

It would be foolish to rush to premature judgement. The old story of Zhou Enlai, the former Chinese premier, being asked in the early 1970s about the impact of the French Revolution in 1789 may be apocryphal, but the verdict definitely applies in this case. “Too early to say,” said the wise old boy.

But the signs for English cricket have suddenly emerged as distinctly promising. There is a spring in its step, when a mere six weeks ago it seemed to be hobbling lamely to another disaster.

The one-day series against New Zealand has been a model advertisement for the 50-over game. That England have played a full and constantly zestful part in it has been wonderfully refreshing.

These five matches were preceded by a short Test series which was  itself perpetually engrossing. And, with due respect to the Kiwis – who may be owed a huge debt for what has taken place – all this is simply a precursor.

In 17 days, the 69th contest for the Ashes will begin. The question is not so much whether England can reclaim the urn – though that is a very big question indeed – but whether they can continue to play in a similarly valiant manner.

The members of the one-day team have been asked about it at every turn these past few days. They have tried to be circumspect on the matter, understandably preferring not to become hostages to fortune and recognising that Australia come in a different swag bag altogether, but they too seem to sense that there has been a seminal shift.

As players, they instinctively  understand that something marvellous, bordering on miraculous, has been happening, that the ball, in every sense, has been incessantly coming out of the middle of the bat. Mark Wood, the international novice from Durham, who is about to be sent into the thick of it against Australia, might think it has always been like this.

“I think we can carry this into the Ashes,” he said on Friday at his home ground in Chester-le-Street. “We’ve made huge strides forward. The Ashes is obviously a different format to the one-day series, but the Test series against New Zealand was exciting and, hopefully, that will continue.”

Several factors have brought the team to this point. What began it all, however, was the World Cup. A glittering tournament was disastrous for England. Virtually all they did was turn up, and then it was with the mores of cricket played in some dim and unpleasant past while everyone else was having fun in the sun of the 21st century.

The night in Adelaide when at last they were eliminated from the tournament by Bangladesh was as merciful as it was excruciating.

The Adelaide Oval has witnessed some significant moments for English cricket lately. There was the grim defeat inflicted in 2006 after amassing a total of 551 for 6 declared, and then there was the glorious victory four years later with Australia reduced to 2 for 3 on the first morning. But the hopeless stagger to their eminently deserved doom in March appeared at the time to have particular significance.

If that did not induce action, nothing would. That did not mean another infernal review of the type which followed the 5-0 Ashes hammering in 2006-07 (triggered by what happened in Adelaide) but action, swift and profound. It happened and it happened quickly.

Paul Downton was relieved of his duties as the managing director of England cricket after less than a year in the job following his appointment by the previous executive regime. After a few weeks of interviews and speculation, Andrew Strauss, the former captain who had helped to mastermind that Adelaide Test win and the series victory in 2010-11, was appointed in his place.

Within days Peter Moores, was sacked as coach. Moores is a hell of a good bloke and an astute coach but Strauss took the view that he was not cut out for it internationally, a judgement that seems to have been borne out by recent events.

A few weeks after that, Strauss surprised everyone by appointing the Australian Trevor Bayliss. In hindsight, and though Bayliss has yet to start, it seems to have been an example of practising the art of the bloomin’ obvious.

There was no point in changing the people without changing the fashion in which the team played, the way in which they went about their work. Bayliss and Paul Farbrace, the England assistant coach, are old muckers. Farbrace was ready to instigate an immediate switch of policy, Strauss was ready and eager to let him.

Self-deception has been rife around the England team awhile, not only in kidding themselves that their one-day style was in good order but that their Test form was sound. The latter was predicated on a comeback victory last summer against India, who could not have been more supine had they rolled over to have their tummies tickled.

Enter New Zealand. Over the course of three years they have adopted a method of playing with a joyous, unconfined freedom, which might have been seen by some as gung-ho. Somehow, they have dragged England along and England have found they rather liked the ride. They have the players in Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Wood who can probably cope with it. The Test captain, Alastair Cook, has to harness this newly discovered power.

Now there lies in wait Australia and the Ashes. There is no more serious business for an English (or Australian) cricketer and there is no more serious team than Australia. These tourists will play aggressively and entertainingly but there will be nothing soft about their attitude. If they are enjoying it, it will only be because they are rubbing English noses in the dust.

England have barely started on this revolutionary path and there is no certainty that they can continue along it when they return to the Test arena in general and when Australia are the opponents in particular. But they will have realised – and Strauss and Bayliss will reinforce the point – that this is a better way. Too early to say, maybe, but by the end of August we shall now much more.

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