England walk towards danger in record breaking summer

image-l83hbiunEngland have had an outstanding summer (PC: Twitter)

Perhaps a three-day match in extraordinary circumstances was ultimately the perfect platform for resurgent England’s confident and aggressive approach. This Oval Test between England and South Africa was both the shortest completed Test in England since 1912 and the shortest ever to go to a fifth day. 

With just 909 balls bowled in two days and 28 minutes, full throttle it may have been, but was still some way short of the record set in 1932 by South Africa and Australia. Just five hours and thirty - three minutes play flashed by at the MCG as Bert Ironmonger’s left arm spin claimed 5 for 6 and six for 18 to bowl South Africa out for 36 and 45 although a day lost to rain and a rest day extended the match time itself. 

Whether bad light should have been allowed to curtail Day 2 at the Oval, with England needing just 33 runs to win is a moot point. It certainly seemed that both captains and the capacity crowd wanted to see things through as Crawley and Lees were propelling England to within touching distance of victory. 

As it turned out, a surprisingly healthy crowd was there to cheer England home on Monday in under half an hour and for the loss of just Alex Lees whose luck finally ran out after slippery South African fingers had afforded him three escapes. England will lose little sleep over that and reflect instead upon how their relentless focus on quick scoring and wickets over economy rates has turned them from back foot whipping boys to front foot heroes under Ben Stokes. 

Impeccable leadership from Ben Stokes

Throughout the summer England’s Captain Fantastic has exuded positivity and led by example with 368 runs at 40.88, including one hundred and two fifties, and 18 wickets at 25.66. Many of those wickets have come in back bending spells to grab vital game changing wickets. 

image-l83hchpfBen Stokes (PC: Twitter)

Fields have continually been set to maximise the pressure on the opposition with wickets rather than runs conceded the primary currency. Less than four slips at any time have been a rarity. Up to six slips and gullies on occasion have left plenty of space for batsmen that they have often failed to find. Seldom have England taken more catches in a home summer than the 92 that stuck this year against New Zealand, India and South Africa. Strike rates and economy rates under McCullum and Stokes are chalk and cheese to the recent past, the Times quoting a strike rate of 50.06 this summer compared to 63.1 last summer but an economy rate that has climbed from 2.85 last year to 3.14 this. 

The results though have spectacularly justified the means, with England taking all twenty wickets in six of the seven Tests played. As Stuart Broad has said “We’ve really enjoyed forgetting about the economy rate and whether you get hit for four. The mindset is: bowl a side out as quickly as possible, and if you go at 4.5 runs an over that doesn’t matter.”

Bowling sides out quickly, is of course, only part of the equation. The other part is to score runs fast too and in this, England have excelled to record breaking effect. By scoring at a shade under 4.5 an over throughout the summer, Stokes’ charges have achieved the fasted rate by any side in any season of three or more Tests. Until his golfing mishap Jonny Bairstow has rampantly led the way with 681 runs at a strike-rate of 96.59, eclipsing even Ian Botham’s 1981 heroics and along the way scoring the second fastest century in England history. Given the evidence of the Oval, a change of personnel is certainly not a cause to change approach.

Not since 2004 under the leadership of Michael Vaughan have England won six Tests in a series. The three Tests against South Africa incredibly yielded a wicket every 6.2 overs with England’s strike rate the best of any series of three or more matches since 1896. It was heady stuff to enjoy, if a shade worrying for administrators counting days and thus revenue lost. 

Pakistan series presents an unique challenge for England

The white ball will have focus for a while now and for some of England’s Test heroes that means some well-earned rest. However, with a three Test series in Pakistan to come in December, Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum will be acutely aware that this represents a very different set of challenges. 

image-l83hdwu6McCullum has transformed England's Test team (PC: Twitter)

A high-quality pace and spin attack awaits England on pitches in Rawalpindi, Multan and Karachi that will Test to the limit whether they are batting or bowling. In the cold light of day, the returns this summer of Alex Lees and Zak Crawley cannot be seen as a success. Crucially, however, with toughest of jobs in facing the new ball, both have showed the willingness to embrace England’s new ethos and have demonstrated some adaptation and thus improvement along the way. The nature of the Oval chase has bought them both time and trust, perhaps more so for Crawley. Likewise, James Anderson and Stuart Broad continue to sup from the fountain of eternal youth, but even that will run dry at some point. They will need heavy duty back up in Pakistan. 

There is plenty for Brendon McCullum, who never himself played a Test in Pakistan, to consider as he heads home for a break. It seems he is under no illusions though. 

“When we go to Pakistan, we can’t live off the fact we have won six out of seven games here because it is a completely different challenge. We want to continue the form we have shown and the way in which we play, to walk towards the danger of what Pakistan is going to throw at us.”  

The nature of that walk may need to adapt a little, but I would lay good money now that one thing it will not be is dull!

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