It was not a cheer that rang around Edgbaston at midday on a cool, overcast Tuesday in Birmingham so much as a thunderclap. England blitzed a target of 378 runs in 76.4 overs, three wickets down, for their highest successful chase in 145 years of Test cricket and somehow the impact felt even more seismic.
This seven-wicket win against India was the fourth time this summer that England, under the bristling leadership of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, have made mountain climbing look like a brisk walk after cruising to targets of 277, 299 and 296 against New Zealand. And yet long after the dust settled this time, with the podium long since dismantled and the beer flowing in the home dressing room, their latest ascent still took some computing.
India, a team who have twice won on Australian soil in recent times, who were even more dominant than the 2-1 lead they secured when this series paused last summer, were invited to bat first, Stokes talking like a one-day captain when saying he wanted to “chase”. The tourists stuck 416 runs on the board through a Rishabh Pant special of 146 and Ravindra Jadeja’s 104 and, though Jonny Bairstow returned fire with 106, England buckled to 284 all out, leaving them 132 behind on first innings.
Even though India folded at the back end of their second dig, Stokes impressively marshalling his troops to claim the last seven wickets for 120 runs on the fourth morning to turn 125 for three into 245 all out, it was “history required” territory for England and common sense (plus the algorithms) made India favourites. Instead came a fearless, calculated assault, kickstarted by Zak Crawley and Alex Lees blazing their way to England’s fastest century opening stand in history, 19.5 overs.
Not even the minor inconvenience of losing three wickets for two after this, amid a flickering of the wonderful Indian tamasha witnessed on these shores last summer, could break England’s tunnel vision. Bairstow and Joe Root this time sashayed into the danger rather than ran (as McCullum puts it), finessing a pair of slick centuries in an unbroken stand of 254 and needing just 90 minutes on the final morning to inflict the coup de grâce.
Indian shoulders dropped and there was little of the tension witnessed during the final throes of England’s previous record chase, that famous day at Headingley in 2019 when Stokes donned his cape, Jack Leach polished his glasses and Australia goofed a defence of 359. There was barely a shred of it, in fact – Root and Bairstow utterly neutralising the threat of Jasprit Bumrah and co before breaking out the party tricks.
A charging drive here, a reverse-scooped six there, Root and Bairstow cruised to three figures like a couple of purring supercars; the turnout after a fire sale of free tickets may have been a touch disappointing but everyone present had a favourite moment to debate as they made afternoon plans. And then Stokes, amid the presentations and press conferences that tested his thirst for the post-match celebrations, said: “There was a bit of me that almost wanted them to get 450 [ahead] to see what we did.”
Blimey. This was quite the statement from the new captain. It may be taken as hubris in some of the saltier corners but, if nothing else, it underlines the confidence coursing through English veins at present. Long gone is the winter of discontent, the repeat thrashings in Australia and the tour of self-delusion in the Caribbean, and in its place a team that, with very minor tweaks by way of personnel, have utterly transmogrified.
Some may point to the latest in a run of English surfaces this summer that have refused to break up, or a doughy Dukes ball that has been changed more often than Elton John between songs back in the day. Perhaps it will be simply put down to the collision of two remarkable purple patches in form, with Root’s 142 not out his 11th Test century in the last 18 months and Bairstow’s unbeaten 114 an astonishing fourth in his past five innings.
But then what will South Africa’s Dean Elgar be thinking if he wins the toss at Lord’s on 17 August and all logic screams bat first? Or Babar Azam in December if Pakistan’s groundstaff prepare the same flat, sorry, beautiful batting strips they rolled out for Australia’s recent visit.
England, under their so-called “Bazball” approach, are playing at such lick now it is opening up the back end of Tests to create a far broader canvas for the run chase. Innings one to three are simply working out the equation.
Stokes told his players as much on the fourth evening, his pitch being that the third innings has now replaced the fourth as the true pressure cooker in a Test “because they have to concentrate on how we’re going to play, and they’re worried about that”, he later explained. “To be in that position as a team, being feared before they’ve even finished their innings, is an unbelievable place to be in.”
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The all-rounder said England are attempting to “rewrite how Test cricket is being played, in England especially” with Eoin Morgan’s pioneering, record-breaking white-ball team serving as their muse. Can a similar paradigm shift be achieved in a format that is far more capricious and features a broader range of variables and conditions?
Time will tell. But if the alarm bells in dressing rooms around world cricket that McCullum spoke about after the 3-0 victory over New Zealand did not register, this latest thunderclap surely will.