No fear: England have dared to dream under their new brains trust

June 19, 2022

Of McCullum and Co, Jonny B, and more. And what's a good pitch anyway?

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Hampshire won on Wednesday, which had not seemed likely for most of the match. Batting first, Yorkshire made 428, to which Hampshire replied with 410. And then came the third-innings yips. From the despair of 103 for 6, the Yorkies cobbled together another 75, leaving Hampshire 197 to win on the last afternoon. Which they did. Happy Hants indeed. Surrey crept over the line too, so the County Championship has those two winners at the top of the table - Surrey 127 points, Hampshire 124. For a one-time Hampshire player, this is exciting stuff.

You might well wonder what this has to do with the editor's requested reflection on England's staggering performance at Trent Bridge. Maybe not much, is one answer; maybe a great deal, is another. In England's shadow, James Vince's team clawed their way back into a game that a less ambitious team might not even have considered. The Hampshire players will have had their eye on Trent Bridge and marvelled at the brilliance on show: at the sense of possibility, which so quickly became probability; at the fearlessness. It may only be subliminal but from such a show comes inspiration and from inspiration comes the making of great deeds. In the glory of England's amazing victory came Hampshire's unlikely and thrilling win. A game that at the halfway stage needed saving became a game that could be won. And it was.

It has been a good couple of months for county cricket. Generally good weather has helped the preparation of firm and dry pitches, the consequence of which has been longer, tougher Championship matches often played out in the final session on the fourth day. The feeling of hopelessness after England's dismal tour of the Caribbean has been replaced by a lighter mood that has improved blood flow in the game's arteries.

County cricket can be a grind and its mood has long had the tendency to reflect as much. The point doing the rounds right now is that Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes have freed the minds of the England players, thus allowing them to play with an amateur's sense of adventure and joy.

It is true that playing fully professional sport leads to more structured performance. Foremost among the reasons for this are fear of failure (and therefore job protection); linear coaching, often designed to limit error; and layers of support staff and management that can lead to mediocrity. The more people there are to report to, the less clear becomes the message.

Most English cricketers are surrounded by the dirge of a profession made from the currency of runs and wickets. Bad shots and poor deliveries are the subject of analysis and often paralysis. People are in work because they do the hard yards - throwing balls, hitting catches, making videos, applying stats. This fear of failure has long haunted professional cricket and continues to do so. In England, the old pros always preached defence over attack; the fought-for draw over the risky win; tight, flat offbreaks over high-flighted legbreaks. T20 cricket began the breaking of the mould; the IPL looked to shatter it but still the English couldn't quite let go. Until Eoin Morgan took over the white-ball teams, and then the penny dropped. Who was the genesis of Morgan's ethos? McCullum. After the appointment of McCullum, pound coins appear to be falling from the sky

When I was a lad, we admired Geoff Boycott and John Edrich for their technique and discipline, but we loved outliers such as Ted Dexter and Ian Botham for their devil-may-care, almost reckless, attitude. Dexter and Botham reported to no one but themselves; John Snow, David Gower amd Kevin Pietersen the same. Stokes is of the same stock. He urges a policy of "no fear" and during the tea break on Tuesday, said something like "We win or we lose, the draw is not an option."

There is a lesson here. English cricket is not as bad as some say it is and not as good as others have sometimes thought. But it could be. Two swallows threaten to make this summer. If they do, the call for change will take a different direction and the target will be less the players and the structure of the first-class game than the uncertain and nervous governance of the board and its stakeholders. A new chair and CEO are due. The "risk" taken in appointing McCullum - whose blue-sky thinking is a revelation/revolution long overdue - needs to be backed up by charismatic leadership, clarity of thinking and simple, positive messaging.

It is remarkable what can be achieved with the right mindset at all levels of management and governance. McCullum sees the big picture and encourages performance for a better game to both play and watch. He is not up for the death of Test cricket; rather, he is looking to breathe life into it.

Jonny Bairstow was on the front page of major newspapers on Wednesday morning and his team-mates were spread across many more pages at the back. England played football against Hungary on Tuesday night, the match beginning just a short while after the heroics at Trent Bridge, and lost 0-4. The press piled into that too but from a different angle.

When Bairstow was 13, he played in a charity match for Sir Michael Parkinson's team against Parky's local club, Maidenhead and Bray. The son of David, Jonny was cock of the walk even then and took guard with the air of a lad about to take control of the game, which is exactly what he did. Mike Gatting and I were at slip and watched with interest, no little amusement, and ultimately some astonishment. Jonny didn't see the joke - he just creamed it around the ground and ran like a whippet between the wickets. If ever I saw a young boy more certain to go on to great things, I don't remember it.

On Tuesday at Trent Bridge, he was the architect of one of England's greatest ever victories. Had he known he could have beaten Gilbert Jessop's fastest hundred for England, which came from 76 balls, he would have done so easily. As it was, Jessop still has him by a ball. No one will be happier than his mum, Janet, who raised Jonny and his sister, Becky, after the death of their father when Jonny was 8. The reason for David's suicide remains a mystery, or more probably, remains a private matter for his family. Jonny has lived with it uncomfortably, fighting the demons that confront those who have been spurned but who deeply want to be loved. He deserves the greatest credit for coping with personal distress and, at times, professional mismanagement. Too often he has been overlooked in favour of personalities who require less maintenance.

What a difference a year makes: England turned down a chase of three an over against New Zealand at Lord's last year. What a difference a couple of months make: disjointed and low on confidence in the Caribbean, the England players now smile and strut, happy in their work.

Rob Key, the new managing director of England cricket, told us to buckle up for the ride. In McCullum's first interview, he said he'd like to get the guys mentally well-enough organised "to go and do their thing". Has a team ever turned itself around so quickly? It's like magic, really. The full house at Trent Bridge partied hard. It might not always be like this but when it is...

While writing the paragraph above, I received a text from Dexter's wife, Susan. It reads "Wish he was here, what a day's cricket!" She meant Ted, and he would have loved such free-spirited play, but she could be talking about David too. This was a day for the Bairstows and nothing can ever take that away from them.

A belting pitch allowed this wonderful expression of talent but it was not a one-sided pitch. The first-innings scores were high, hugely so, but 35 wickets fell over five days and ten catches were dropped.

What is the best cricket pitch anyway? Is one man's coffee another man's tea? Do indigenous qualities - good and bad - make for interesting and varied cricket or do they encourage economy with the truth about preparation and requirement?

In general, Trent Bridge has provided excellent and often exciting pitches for both first-class cricket and Test match cricket. There is a reason why Messrs Anderson and Broad like bowling there, and why Joe Root scores so many runs. That reason is the fair balance between bat and ball, the good bounce and pace of the ball, and the tendency for it to move around, though not lavishly. The best players thrive at Trent Bridge and the surface is malleable to their skills.

In 1982, Nottinghamshire bowled out Hampshire for 70 and 56 and won by a mile, though they only made 180 in the first innings themselves. The pitch was indistinguishable from the outfield. Irritated by the greentop in Durban that helped Mike Procter's Natal team beat Clive Rice's Traansval and go on to win the Currie Cup, Rice adopted the well-grassed pitch plan for his adopted county. He had Richard Hadlee, Mike Hendrick, Kevin Saxelby and himself to take advantage of the conditions, along with Eddie Hemmings, who was a superb attacking offspinner, especially when the top order had already been cleaned up.

I mention this because the 1982 pitch looked exactly like the 2015 pitch on which Stuart Broad took 8 for 15 against Australia. Of all the things I've watched live, across more than 300 Tests, nothing beats Broad that morning (I didn't see Bairstow live on Tuesday). Was it right and proper that England created such an advantage for themselves against the Australians? No, not really, but an indelible memory was left for all who were lucky enough to have either been in the stands or on the sofa at home. Broad's reaction - hands to mouth, eyes wide and startled, in a show of shock and something near embarrassment - when Stokes pulled off one of the truly great catches to get rid of Adam Voges is a moment frozen in time. Australia made 60. Root then made 130. England 391-9 declared. Go figure. Before play began, Broad - who sort of lives down the road - told Alastair Cook, his captain, that England should bat first. Thankfully, Cook disagreed.

Was the head groundsman asked to prepare such a surface? Most likely, yes. And in trying to satisfy the England camp, he rather overdid it. Had Australia won the toss, the history books might tell us a very different story. So painful was the loss that at the end of the match, Michael Clarke announced his retirement to take effect from the end of the series.

Two and a bit years later, Australia and England batted out the dullest of draws at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Cook made a daddy double-hundred as the usually vibrant Melbourne crowd drifted away from their characterless pitch.

So we have greentops some days and flat decks on others. Neither work really, nor do dustbowls or lifeless, low-bouncers on the subcontinent and in the Middle East. The world is full of cricket-pitch mysteries. Trent Bridge this past week was not flat. It was fair to batters and bloody hard work for bowlers. But, I repeat, 35 wickets were taken and ten catches dropped. Had the West Indian attack circa 1976-1992, the Australians of 1994 to 2007, or Pakistan with Imran, Akram, Waqar and Qadir bowled on it, you'd have seen a different match. Mark Waugh likes to say, "There is no such thing as a flat pitch, only a flat attack." We know what he means.

And finally, bravo to the Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club, which gave spectators free entrance to the ground on the last day and ensured a full house for the fireworks. A lesson in their generously spirited administration and smart marketing. Give the kids free lemonade, and if they like it, they'll ask Mum and Dad where and when they can have some more. –Cricinfo



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