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England Stoked by Improvement

There was much mutual congratulation going on at the end of the First Test between England and New Zealand when it came to its dramatic climax late on Bank Holiday Monday (Memorial Day to those Yanks’ readers).  Both teams performed admirably and skillfully and the curators were equally proud to prepare a wicket that produced 1,610 runs and all 40 wickets, a post-war record.  Lord’s was indeed done proud.  Some might say, if it wasn’t for the cloud cover and both teams having experts in the art of swing bowling, this pitch would have produced a high scoring bore draw, but I disagree, as there was bounce and carry and a little spin that a bigger spinner of the ball than Craig or Ali would have enjoyed greatly.  Sure there was value for shots but there was also plenty for those who bent their backs.

It was a great occasion all five days and England should be extremely proud of their achievement, overcoming a very good New Zealand team having been up against it well into the third day.  Indeed, their team is coming together quite well and now that we have a fine new Head Coach on the way (pleasing this writer very much after my last article), fresh enthusiasm is abound and maybe winning the Ashes is not so completely out of the question.

Okay so let’s not get over excited, but there was much to enjoy about this win.  Alistair Cook seems back to his best and he is now just 40 runs away from being England’s all-time highest run scorer in Test cricket.  At the age of just 30 he genuinely has every chance of ending his career at the top of the tree if his fitness and form prevails.  He may only average 46.67 but he opens the batting every game so is more likley to get a good one up top and currently the top ten highest run scorers all never opened the batting.  Whisper it quietly to Sachin fans, but if he plays until, say, he is 38 and scores an average of 900 runs a year, that would take him to 16,000!  Now, there’s a thought.

Joe Root also looks in top-notch shape.  His average since he was dropped in the last Ashes, approaches 100 and looks a very fine all-round cricketer.  Clearly he is still in the very early stages of his career and this Summer’s Ashes may well define him, but he looks the business and a fine character to have in the dressing room.  The bowlers did very well and toiled away, Mark Wood had a good debut and looks like he has some serious pace, Moeen Ali continues to be a fine fill-in as the main spin bowler and had a good game with the bat and Jos Buttler and Gary Ballance look to be part of things for some time to come.  Adam Lyth had a tough introduction, but he is a tough Yorkshire character, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he has a good Ashes (something he will surely be part of) and Ian Bell, who had a torrid game (drop catches fueling fire to his poor batting performance) is still a class act and someone we will be relying on when facing the Australian pace men.

And then of course, there was Ben Stokes and wow, what a performance that was!  Now, first of all, let’s make it quite clear, no one and that includes me, thinks he is the new Ian Botham or Freddie Flintoff and indeed, I am certainly not suggesting yet, that he is going to be England’s premier all-rounder for years to come.  He has much to prove for sure.  His career has already had twists and turns, scoring a wonderful 100 against the most fearsome attack in the world on a crazy-paving wicket, before injuring himself punching a locker, going on a shocking run of form and being left out of the World Cup.  He turns 24 next week and we still have much to learn about him, but if you had to pick just one great thing about Peter Moores being let go, it was that England management have finally decided to invest in this big strong boy with loads of balls about him and bring him back in the West Indies and this match promote him to No.6 which he clearly enjoyed.

His first innings was an outstanding effort (possibly a better innings than the famous one on Sunday), coming in at 30-4 with the ball swinging hoops and fresh bowlers tearing in at him.  He played positively (clearly all he knows) and sensibly and when he had that tragic mis-judgement to let a Mark Craig straight one go, he was out for a run-a-ball innings of 92 and his team were in much better shape in the match.  The second innings was all force and flair.  He punched the wide balls, drove hard at the full ones and smashed the short stuff, that one over from Southee will live long in many memories.  With Cook, he put on 130 and turned the match from one that we could only at best, draw, into one that we ended up winning.  When he brought up his hundred, there could not have been many people around the cricketing world who could not be pleased for him.

So, is he the real deal..?  Well, I have written about him a few times previously and it has always been clear to me that he has tremendous talent.  He is a strong boy and has the ability to clear the ropes with ease.  He is tall and stands even taller at the crease and when he is not a happy hooker (clearly not afraid of the short ball, which will help later this Summer), he has the straightest of bats and can drive down the ground and in the ‘V’.  His bowling is still far from the finished article.  He can be wayward and expensive and is a couple of clicks behind the other pace men in the team.  But he can crank it up to 85 mph, he can certainly swing the ball (ask Brendan McCullum about his first baller) and has that golden-arm ability of taking wickets when looking perhaps a smidge innocuous.  When fired up, he certainly can get a home crowd behind him!

He is not the new Ian Botham or Andrew Flintoff, largely because he is by no means as good a bowler, but I think he is a more talented batsman than them both and maybe he is more of a harder hitting Jacques Kallis..?  Either way, if his batting can continue like this and he can get his average above 40, he is a fantastic addition to this team, giving us an exciting No.6 and a 4th quick bowler for games like this one and if we could find a couple of decent spin bowlers, gives us the scope to play 2 spinners on the right wickets.  I am just hopeful he is going to be the new…. Ben Stokes!

England and New Zealand go again tomorrow in Leeds and the ball is sure to carry on swinging, so I imagine Jimmy, Trent, Tim and Stuart will all be licking their lips again.  However, I am more sure the daily full houses will be licking their lips when England go 4 down and the hero of Lord’s strides to the wicket.  These teams are evenly matched so it is impossible to predict, but with Moores mercifully gone, this writer is a little more excited about the Summer ahead.

Til then…

Nige.

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