Why England’s controlled aggression on the field suggests they’re a team on the rise

Why England’s controlled aggression on the field suggests they’re a team on the rise

Why England's controlled aggression on the field suggests a side that's on the rise - ACTION IMAGES VIA REUTERS

Why England’s controlled aggression on the field suggests a side that’s on the rise – ACTION IMAGES VIA REUTERS

There’s more to this controlled aggression than smashing the ball out of the Trent Bridge. England’s bowling and fielding also picked up steam on a fiber-testing first day of the third Test.

A New Zealand total of 225 for five might not look like much to tweet or Tik-Tok about, but given the flatness of that pitch and an attacking absence of Ben Stokes, it was an excellent effort by England to confine New Zealand to the old-fashioned rate of 2.5 a about. A word from Stokes or a T-shaped gesture and England would have sacked Daryl Mitchell too.

England had a rush and determination on the field that all teams without a crackerjack bowler need but rarely show. Her intensity increased all around; each player added an inch, if not a cubit, to his stature, as they must do by next summer’s ashes. They don’t speak the gossip; they do and improve instead.

The wicketkeepers set the tone, which is what Ben Foakes did in the first half when he dove on legside beyond the call of duty. Foakes is back to where he was before the West Indies tour: almost perfect, the best there is except when it came to advising Stokes not to review Matthew Potts’ LBW appeal when Mitchell only scored eight goals had scored.

Jonny Bairstow now appears to have accepted that Foakes deserves to be England’s Test keeper and has finally found his second niche as No 5 specialist. After his innings of his life at Trent Bridge, Bairstow buzzed around the field more than he had ever since stripped the gloves. An older player content with his role – not a man offended, which Bairstow was right to believe, for Jos Buttler never proved superior whatever kind of gloves he wore.

Joe Root and Zak Crawley usually buff the ball for England, but Bairstow picked it up throughout the first day. Presumably, Root and Crawley are conventional polishers, while Bairstow is the reverse swing specialist: as an extreme case, the ball was thrown to him at the end of a deep square-leg over. A rally and shower stopped the ball from swinging backwards, but the enthusiasm that brought Bairstow to his new role lingered.

Stuart Broad took the lead from Foakes during that opening, as England’s attacking leader in the absence of James Anderson, as the new-ball strike bowler. For too many years he has settled for overwhelming containment, leaving the field 25-3-70-2 after England conceded 400 goals chasing wickets.

Ben Stokes congratulates Stuart Broad after his first wicket - AP

Ben Stokes congratulates Stuart Broad after his first wicket – AP

Those wickets from Tom Latham and Kane Williamson were Broad at his best. A couple of away swingers for the New Zealand captain, an inswinger, then another full ball that held his line: this was strike bowling, not stick bowling with a new ball. By the evening Broad had lost his turn, but if he attacking with the second ball as he did with the first, England will surely come out on top in this game.

An additional level of determination was visible throughout the team. Alex Lees, gaining ground at Test level, attacked the ball from behind; Root fielded much wider on slip for Jack Leach, whether for a conventional edge or to block Mitchell’s reverse sweep, which he managed, or to catch a cut when Tom Blundell is top-edge. Had he not felt shy as an ex-captain, Root – at the first slip and thus second-best position – might have challenged Stokes-Foakes’ decision not to review the decision.

Leach pushed mid-on to long-on earlier for Mitchell and later for Henry Nicholls, but he stayed wide-legged all day and didn’t let himself be milked with sweeps. Not just because he was an early substitute, it wasn’t until the 13th over that Leach suggested he had a clearer and more ambitious strategy than he had at Trent Bridge.

If he shoved the ball through a shadow faster than normal and spectators were demanding more flight, Headingley did exactly the same as Hedley took over from Verity Wilfred Rhodes as a left-armed spinner from Yorkshire and England.

Brendon McCullum will of course have fewer insights to offer when New Zealand are replaced by India and South Africa later this summer, but there’s no reason why that determination shouldn’t remain. Whatever the outcome of this game, England are pulling themselves up by their shoelaces. Their forte is batting and wicketkeeping, but in every aspect of the game they start making the best of what they have.

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