The sight of the England and New Zealand players gleefully kicking a ball together in the Basin Reserve outfield after the dust had settled in one of the most remarkable climaxes of any Test was proof of the fundamental principle of ‘Bazball’.
Yes, of course England want to win, as demonstrated by a record that now stands at 10 wins from 12 Tests under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum.
But there is a bigger picture at play and that is England’s mission to provide highly entertaining, positive and engaging cricket at all times to try and preserve the health of what, when played in this way, remains unrivaled as the best form of the game.
And do they really mean it when they say they are prepared to risk losing to accomplish this mission, as their reaction to defeat, to coin a phrase, by the simplest of all margins, is here how New Zealand won by a lone majority run dramatic circumstances, proof.
That’s why it’s impossible to fault Stokes for his decision to impose continuation, a move that gave New Zealand their only realistic chance of winning a second Test that looked completely beyond them after the first three days.
England lost one of the greatest Test matches of all time, but they fulfilled their mission to play highly entertaining, positive and engaging cricket at all times to try and preserve the game.
The sight of England and New Zealand players socializing after the dust had settled on one of the most remarkable climaxes of a Test was proof of the fundamental principle of ‘Bazball’
It is impossible to fault Stokes for his decision to impose a continuation after the first few innings.
And it’s impossible to blame a batting lineup that seemed unusually hesitant and nervous in chasing what, when compared with the six successful chases they already pulled off last year, should have been routine hazing for 258 to win this series.
New Zealand may have become just the fourth team in history to win after going through, while England were denied their seventh consecutive win, a historic clean sheet in all winter tests and their first series win in New Zealand since 2008. But as cheesy as it may sound, there really were no losers on this magnificent old ground today.
“What a game,” said Stokes afterwards, without a smidgen of disappointment at England’s agonizing near miss. “I just think that if you can’t look back on that match and be grateful for being in a game like that then you can’t love Test cricket.
‘We always want to give ourselves the best opportunity to win, but sometimes you have to lose to really appreciate how good it feels to win. And if you’re going to lose, you better do it in games like this. I just think everyone is appreciating it for what it was. It was a great game to be a part of.’
That’s not to say it wasn’t heartbreaking to see Jimmy Anderson go down with a little tickle on the side of his leg with two runs needed after teaming up with Jack Leach with seven needed and duly dancing on the wicket and crushing Neil Wagner long for four of them.
It was only before what became a drawn series that Anderson was asked about England’s apparent quest for him to score the game-winning runs in a Test, apparently offering him the chance to go early last summer when a match nearly went defeated.
The 40-year-old wasn’t having any of it at the time, saying ‘I really have no desire to hit the winning runs in a Test. I like to go bowling. But how he would love to do that when that chance actually came against all odds in front of a packed Basin Reserve.
Even Anderson’s reaction after being dumped was revealing. He paused to ask umpire Chris Gaffaney why he hadn’t called a Wagner wide on the previous ball – England had a legitimate case but nobody complained about it afterwards – but Anderson was quick to shake hands with the New Zealand players and, yes , even smile. “He just liked everything,” Stokes said.
Contrast that with Anderson’s reaction nine years ago, when he was in tears after being knocked out against Sri Lanka at Headingley, when it looked like he had only secured a draw. Make no mistake, this is important to Anderson, but he can also see the bigger picture now.
We must remember some of the dramas of the last day. England lost four wickets in the first hour to leave New Zealand favourites, Joe Root somehow disposing of new superstar Harry Brook before even facing a ball. It was to prove the most defining moment for many of them throughout this Final Test.
But the former England captain at Root joined his successor Stokes in a partnership of 121 that looked certain to turn the game in England’s favor before both were dismissed recklessly hauling four balls off Neil Wagner to leave 57 still needed.
That’s when Ben Foakes, making a strong case to stay in the England team when Jonny Bairstow returns, took over and commanded the tail brilliantly, taking his side to within seven of winning before also going down pulling, this time well caught by Wagner off-side. Tim Southee.
Anderson threw the chance of a lifetime against Wagner to bring England to the brink, but it was to prove a case of so close and so far, New Zealand enjoying the sort of final they were on the wrong side of when England won ‘by the tiniest bit’ margin’ in the 2019 World Cup final.
England could, of course, have knocked their opponents out of the game had they not applied the sequence. Any regrets, Ben? “I thought it was the right decision, thinking about the way we’ve run through New Zealand’s top order the previous three innings,” said Stokes.
‘The wicket was going quite well, it was overcast and looked as though it would not deteriorate over the last few days. If we find ourselves in that position again I’ll have to think about it but, chasing 258, we’ll probably look back as a scouting party and say we weren’t good enough.’
Harry Brook’s departure without facing a ball was an extremely decisive moment in the game
Anderson was quick to shake hands with the New Zealand players and even smile despite the loss.
England continued their New Zealand transformation and could leave with a lot of bright spots
England have been quite good over the past year and their transformation has continued in New Zealand with the big game against Australia this summer just around the corner.
‘That spirit and the way we play now will not change when the pressure really builds within the Ashes,’ promised Stokes. ‘I’m really excited about this challenge.’
So he should be. Just like all of us. No one present here today or watching from afar can fail to be utterly transfixed by this Test and, frankly, all the Tests that England are now playing.
And that, given the march of franchises and the quest for a ‘new’ cricket audience focused on Twenty20 and Hundred, can only be a good thing.