Why England's controlled aggression in the field suggests they are a side on the up

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Why England's controlled aggression in the field hints at a side who are on the up - ACTION IMAGES VIA REUTERS
Why England's controlled aggression in the field hints at a side who are on the up - ACTION IMAGES VIA REUTERS

There is more to this controlled aggression than belting the ball out of Trent Bridge. On a fibre-testing first day of the third Test, England’s bowling and fielding also increased in sharpness.

A New Zealand total of 225 for five might not look much to tweet or Tik-Tok about but considering the flatness of this pitch, and an attack lacking Ben Stokes, it was a sterling effort by England to contain New Zealand to the old-fashioned rate of 2.5 an over. A word from Stokes, or a T-shape gesture, and England would have dismissed Daryl Mitchell too.

England had a bustle and purpose in the field which all teams without a crackerjack bowler need but seldom display. Their intensity increased all round; each player added an inch if not a cubit to his stature, as they will have to do by next summer’s Ashes. They are not talking the talk; they are doing and improving instead.

Wicketkeepers set the tone, which Ben Foakes did in the first over when diving beyond the call of duty down the leg side. 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 the LBW appeal by Matthew Potts when Mitchell had scored only eight.

Jonny Bairstow seems now to have accepted that Foakes deserves to be England’s Test keeper and found his second niche at last as a specialist No 5. Treading on air after his innings of a lifetime at Trent Bridge, Bairstow buzzed around the field more than he ever has since being deprived of the gloves. A senior player content with his role - not a man aggrieved, which Bairstow had a right to feel he was, because Jos Buttler never proved himself superior, whichever kind of gloves he wore.

Joe Root and Zak Crawley normally polish the ball for England but Bairstow took it on as the first day progressed. 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 deep square-leg at the end of one over. A change of ball, and a shower, stopped the ball reverse-swinging but the zest which Bairstow brought to his new role remained.

Stuart Broad took over the lead from Foakes during that opening over, as England’s attack-leader in the absence of James Anderson, as a new-ball strike bowler. For too many years he has been content with back-of-a-length containment, leaving the field with 25-3-70-2 after England have conceded 400. Broad is back to the adventurousness of his youth, prepared to pitch full and be driven in pursuit of wickets.

Ben Stokes congratulates Stuart Broad after his first wicket - AP
Ben Stokes congratulates Stuart Broad after his first wicket - AP

Those wickets of Tom Latham and Kane Williamson were Broad at his best. A couple of away swingers to the New Zealand captain, an inswinger, then another full ball that held its line: this was strike-bowling, not stock bowling with a new ball. By eventide Broad had lost his puff but if he attacks with the second ball as he did with the first, England will surely be ahead of this game.

An extra degree of purpose was visible throughout the team. Alex Lees, finding his feet at Test level, attacked the ball from backward point; Root fielded much wider at slip for Jack Leach, whether for a conventional edge or to block Mitchell’s reverse-sweep, which he managed, or catch a cut if Tom Blundell top-edged. Had he not felt diffident as the ex-captain, Root - at first slip and therefore the second-best position - might have challenged the Stokes-Foakes decision not to review.

Leach pushed mid-on out to long-on sooner for Mitchell and later for Henry Nicholls, but he kept square-leg up all day, not allowing himself to be milked with sweeps. Not simply because he was brought on early, for only the 13th over, Leach suggested he had a clearer and more ambitious strategy than at Trent Bridge.

If he pushed the ball through a shade quicker than normal and had spectators calling for more flight, Headingley did exactly the same when Hedley Verity took over from Wilfred Rhodes as Yorkshire and England’s left-arm spinner.

Brendon McCullum will naturally have fewer insights to offer when New Zealand are replaced by India and South Africa later this summer but there is no reason why this purposefulness should not remain. Whatever the result of this match, England are pulling themselves up by their bootlaces. Their forte is batting, and wicketkeeping, but in every aspect of the game they are beginning to make the most of what they have.

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