It has been a thrilling summer of Test cricket (even if this series against South Africa has been a little too dominated by bowlers too good for the opposition batters), and a great summer for Test cricket.
Not even the bad light that saw play end shortly after 6.30pm last night can obscure that fact. Ben Stokes’ team have played some exhilarating stuff with a certain showmanship but, credit where it is due, the administrators have done well too, showing a flexible and enlightened attitude to fifth day ticketing (it was free again today), and providing a pitch-perfect response to the death of the Queen this weekend. A day off on Friday followed by poignant tributes on Saturday, with still enough time for a result, struck a balance that other sports missed.
This match only crept 25 minutes into its final day, as England completed a nine-wicket win that sealed the series 2-1, and means they have won six of their seven matches this summer, their best return since 2004.
For England, the travails of the winter and their run of one win from 17 feel a lifetime ago, not least for Chris Silverwood, sacked as Head Coach after the Ashes. He led Sri Lanka to an unlikely Asia Cup victory yesterday, at a time of extraordinary upheaval at home. The game moves fast, and so do England’s games.
Under Silverwood’s replacement, Brendon McCullum, England have not immediately become one of the best teams in the world. They have not reinvented the wheel. But they are a unit transformed, infused with the positivity preached by the coach and captain, Ben Stokes. They are keeping things simple, sticking to their strengths, and playing with a smile on their faces. There is an infectiousness to it all.
Stuart Broad observed last night that England “are now at a stage where every player has contributed throughout a Test summer, which is really healthy place to be”. There have been contributions throughout the side, with the middle order of Ollie Pope, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow (who despite injury was named player of the summer) and Stokes providing strong depth, and options in the seam attack from bowlers both old and young.
Broad and James Anderson have made excellent comebacks after being left out in the Caribbean in march, but Ollie Robinson (the player of the match here) and Matt Potts were excellent, while Jamie Overton made an encouraging start, too. A new approach to the batting has been obvious, but the bowlers are attacking more than ever before, too.
Broad was able to make that declaration because Zak Crawley had finally registered a half-century, and it was the opener who hit the winning runs this morning to finish 69 not out.
His opening partner, Alex Lees, was the only wicket to fall on the final morning, ending a charmed stay at the crease. In the first over of the day, on 34, he was dropped badly by keeper Kyle Verreyne, and in the second, on 35, an edge flashed through the hands of third slip. His luck ran out in the third over of the day, though, when Kagiso Rabada’s review saw him trapped lbw from round the wicket, an angle that troubled him.
That was Rabada’s 14th wicket of a series that saw him named South Africa’s player of the series. They lost their way badly after a sensational three-day win at Lord’s, making poor changes and a bad choice at the toss – batting first – in Manchester, contributing to their decline. Their callow batting was always their biggest problem, and they made just one half-century.
By the time Lees fell, though, the openers had shared 108, and the end was in sight. Ollie Pope joined Crawley at the crease and fizzed with intent. With just five required for victory, Pope even attempted a Joe Root-style reverse-scooped six. He did not connect, leaving Crawley to punch through cover to secure the win. This was a significant innings for him in a significant win for England.