Well, that happened.
We’d heard about Baz-ball, this curious and vague mix of no-fear cricket played with campfire spirit where everyone – team-mate or opposition – is a mate and to be agreed due respect. But that was white-ball cricket, the culmination of which was the 2019 World Cup where – and this is dumbing it down – England brought the berserker and New Zealand the feel-good.
What doesn’t get mentioned as often is that New Zealand lost that Test comfortably. McCullum slogged to the leg side in the second innings, a ball after he’d hit a six, and left New Zealand, effectively, minus 30 for four.
Stokes had a wonderful game with bat and ball, and also with words. He got to the nub of what Baz-ball may be with a wonderful turn of phrase that ad copywriters for sports brands are kicking themselves for not having coined first. “Run into the fear,” he said, “of what the game was.”
ran hurled themselves into the fear of New Zealand’s 553 – that is what made this game. Stokes’ 33-ball 46 was the subject of a little discontent, specifically the dismissal: slog-sweeping having already hit a six, with England still 148 behind and only the wicketkeeper and bowlers to come. But he reasoned that he played it according to what he felt the game needed and, in his mind, the game did not need a normal Test-match innings. And then, of course, with Bairstow, he scared the crap out of the fear of a last-day, 299-run chase.
All philosophy, we know, is great until real life has its say. Cricket has a geography that will make this happen. The surface dictates everything that plays out on it. And this was a very unusual English surface: pace, bounce, small boundaries and an outfield made of glass. It was made for this kind of ambition. (As an aside, maybe this is the template England never knew they needed to build a fortress at home. Unlike, say Australia and India, touring England has not been a daunting prospect for so many teams, as results attest). But facing R Ashwin and Axar Patel in Chennai, or Pat Cummins and co at the G will require a more nuanced ambition.
Eras change gradually and stealthily, not over the course of five days. They’re built as much on mistakes and missteps as the good times. And this is one Test. McCullum and Stokes are two men. Cricket isn’t a game of two XIs. It is a game of systems and infrastructure and money.
But for the duration of the Test, nothing was more tangible than the prospect of a light being switched on, and probably not just for England but for the sport.
Maybe it was the heady delirium of post-captaincy decompression talking. Maybe it was the dressing room mantra filtering out. But these weren’t empty words. Three overs into that morning, Root would reverse-scoop Tim Southee for six. He was burning flags here.
Five overs before the close of the previous day’s play he had played this hockey-flick of an on-drive from outside off stump, which was par for the course for a 20-year-old white-ball aspirant, not so much for a 119-Veteran red-ball test; his second boundary of the innings was a wristy pull he had engineered off a ball that was neither short nor too straight. Throw in the sweep off Southee that almost dismissed Root and this was veering away from just a cheat-day innings into – at least for this moment – a more substantial overhaul.
Even the administrators got it. That is how powerful the moment was. Nottinghamshire offered free entry to all on the final day, certain in the knowledge that the moment would not let them down.
Also, 12 dropped catches will change the way to Test plays out. Which only adds to the unique, already mythical nature of this spectacle. It could have played out a million different ways, and yet it did in the one way that made least sense.
It might make sense by the time we hit Headingley. Or it might turn out it was all some dream. In either case we go there with these final words from Stokes. Asked how England would tackle the final Test – no dead rubbers in the WTC, thank you ICC – Stokes said: “Come harder.”
That sounds, uniquely, like both a promise and a warning.
Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo