In front of a raucous Sunday afternoon’s crowd at Headingley, England’s cricketers earned themselves a reprieve. It felt like a last stand for this team and its leadership, particularly when Ben Stokes was pummelling sixes with one functioning knee and a stiff back on Friday morning. England have got themselves into a hole of their own making in this most extraordinary of Ashes series, now through sheer bloody mindedness they have given themselves the chance to get out of it.
Credit should be given where it is due. The Bouncer has been very critical of England over the last two Tests but they deserve significant praise for what they have achieved in the last four days in South Yorkshire. It would have been very easy for heads to go down and players to disappear into their shells. Those of us old enough to remember the bad old days of Ashes contests in the 1990’s and early 2000’s can recall how, once the Australians go 2-0 up in a series it is usually the death knell for the contest. Even the heroes of 2005 never went 2-0 down. Michael Vaughan admitted that, if they had, it would “certainly” have finished 5-0 to Australia.
Instead, Ben Stokes and his beleaguered men have dragged themselves off the floor, literally in the case of the skipper, and earned themselves another shot in the last chance saloon.
England’s win will be seen in some quarters as a vindication of Bazball. However, the opposite is true. England won precisely because they abandoned the more extreme tenants of Bazball and played what many would call “proper” Test cricket instead.
The hosts adopted a notably more controlled approach to their batting across this Test. After an opening 8 overs that yielded 51 runs, the scoring rate in the first innings slowed to just over two runs per over for long periods. Even in Sunday’s run chase there was very little of the frenetic cricket we have seen earlier on in this series. Zak Crawley got out to poor decision making, driving a ball that was not full enough for the shot, the delivery after playing the same shot for four. The otherwise excellent Harry Brook swiped needlessly at a short ball from Starc with victory in sight but, in the main, England played attacking but measured cricket. This was Bazball with brains and it may be the template for the rest of the series.
We are not privy to the conversations in the England dressing room but perhaps Stokes and McCullum have finally realised what has been obvious to the rest of us all along, that the Ashes is not a glorified T20 contest and that positive, attacking cricket must be tempered with a little common sense. If they can continue to achieve this then the greatest comeback in the history of the Test match game could still be on.
Now the pressure has shifted onto Australia for the first time in the series and the tourists are finding themselves with questions to answer. Pat Cummins was non-committal when asked whether opener David Warner’s place was secure for the Old Trafford Test. Warner started the series strongly but now seems irrevocably in the grip of his nemesis Stuart Broad. The 36 year old may not get his wish to bow out at his home ground of Sydney next winter, for, if he is jettisoned now, it will be difficult to see a way back.
Australia’s approach to their second innings will also come under scrutiny. Up till now the pragmatism of Cummins and his team has been praised as a common sense alternative to England’s more helter-skelter approach. However, at Headingly the first cracks started appearing. Australia scored 116-4 in 47 overs of their second innings on Friday evening. While it is true that conditions were not the easiest for batting, the tourists had the chance to seize the initiative in the game but instead seemed paralysed by caution and fear. That passage of play was arguably the most significant in the game, as it allowed England to make inroads into the Australian top order without their opponents scoring at a quick enough rate to take the game away from them. By the time Travis Head counterattacked on the Saturday the damage had already been done.
England’s victory has breathed life into a series that was in danger of becoming an Australian whitewash.
Like a wounded cowboy limping to one last high noon with his adversary, Stokes’ gunslingers have earned themselves another chance. The Ashes is alive. On to Old Trafford we go