“Because of the depth of white ball cricket in the UK and the grand scale of the Hundred, the IPL and other tournaments, these guys are used to performing under pressure and getting out. So now it’s ‘I’m entering the game’ and the risks aren’t as great as they seem. They just play to their strengths.”
As the chart below shows, England’s run rate under McCullum is consistently higher than the average in Tests for the same period (and the average of four runs per over itself is historically high, as it beat England’s car speed at Rawalpindi and the short chase from Australia to Sri Lanka).
McCullum’s breakthrough moment came in the wake of the horrific death of Phillip Hughes in November 2014. New Zealand played Pakistan in the UAE and did not want to continue. After speaking with the psychologist Gilbert Enoka, McCullum advised his team to abandon all their previous ideas about how to play or prepare.
“The outcome of the ‘indifferent’ play with no consequences was a revelation to me,” said McCullum. in his 2016 Cowdrey lecture. “I guess it was something I had been trying to achieve on a personal level for years; but I hadn’t been able to, except fleeting moments. Here there was a release of many of the external factors that can sneak in and affect a player. There was an instinct that took over – no fear of failure, just play and be ‘in the moment’.”
What followed was a huge score of 690 made with nearly five left, 22 sixes and a win almost as seismic as this one on a dead surface. From this perspective it is understandable that McCullum, Stokes and England do not see this as a risky game.
“With ‘Baz’ it’s not about forcing change or creating a legacy, this is exactly what he believes in,” Woodhill said. “His mantra is that if you are overly positive and aggressive, you will have better luck and things will work out the way you want them to.
“Baz doesn’t actually see this as risk-taking or risk-taking. He firmly believes that being positive and aggressive is the way to play. You will have to counterpunch this team as they will come out swinging and get you on the ropes. So it’s how teams deal with it.
“When that scoreboard starts ticking, self-doubt always appears in the opposition. That’s the beauty of this team – a fielding side takes a wicket and thinks, OK we can reset a couple of overs – but the next man is suddenly 30 from 28 and there’s a partnership of 50 from 45 balls and you think ‘how is it happens?'”
England’s achievements have expanded the range of generally acceptable options for Test cricket, much as the Netherlands did for football in the 1970s, by taking full advantage of the rising skills of batting in the shorter formats and bringing that back to red ball games.
In England’s second innings at Rawalpindi, former captain Joe Root switched to a left-handed two-ball batting stance while leg spinner Zahid Mahmood was bowling on his pads in the rough.
Root may have gone viral for his exploits, but the dramatic uptick comes from younger teammates: Zak Crawley does what England hoped he would, Harry Brook goes for Test bowling with the same strength he showed in Twenty20, and Ollie Pope looks twice as player out who floundered in the Ashes last summer.
“There’s always that cycle of change,” Woodhill said. “We saw it with the 2001 Australian team with Hayden at the top and Gilchrist at seven and chasing the game a bit more. I think there’s more white ball cricket being played now where hit rates of a hundred or more are the norm rather than the exception, and that’s being carried over.
“Then there was England at Edgbaston who scored 400 in a day in 2005, and the pace at which they played sent a signal to the Australian team that these guys are playing without fear.
“We’ve seen innings from Dave Warner, Travis Head played the same where they attacked the bowling. But as it becomes more acceptable, more people will take it on.”
In the aftermath of England’s win, secured as the light faded in Rawalpindi, Stokes returned to a different theme, which was to make Test cricket as visible as possible.
“We’re going to play to win every game here and if we’re in the same position in game two, we’ll do exactly the same,” said Stokes. “We don’t want Test Cricket to fall off the face of the earth. It must live on and we will do everything we can to keep it alive.
“That’s what we try to do as a team: make Test cricket as exciting as the shorter formats. The way the batters went out with freedom and fun allowed us to be where we were on day five. And also the willingness of the bowlers to experiment with different plans and pitches. We had to be unconventional to take 20 wickets.
“We wanted the game to be in a position where everyone just didn’t know what was going to happen. It’s much more exciting to watch and play with, knowing there’s something to play for. We managed to take the last wicket with eight minutes left, something like that. Who wouldn’t want to watch a test match played like this?