1. The Traditional Underdog Story
There's a bit in the British comedy show "That Mitchell and Webb Look" where the comedians, playing two German soldiers in the Second World War, are having a conversation. Robert Webb's character, apparently suddenly convinced of the likelihood of Axis defeat, says to David Mitchell's character, "have you ever seen a film?" He then goes on to explain how in most films, the slow-starting, disadvantaged combatant generally wins through in the end.
Sports movies are a bit like this. In fact, some film theorists have gone to great lengths to explain how all screenplays tell the same seven or eight stories. For Adam Sandler, this might well be six or seven variants too many - but I digress. In sports movies, the team that begins down on its knees, unable to buy a win, one player short and with the manager's wife asking for a divorce, usually ends up winning the State Championship - Gene Hackman's "Hoosiers" being an example of the genre.
For England to go from probably the worst Cricket World Cup performance anyone can remember watching, and a humiliating drawn series against a half-steam West Indies team, to creaming Australia on home turf, tested the credibility of even a sports movie script. Heck, even Alastair Cook starts to look lovable, partly because no-one is mentioning Kevin Pietersen any more. Oops.
Even that defeat to Bangladesh doesn't seem so bad, now the plucky Tigers have beaten Pakistan, India and South Africa in one-day series.
2. The Low Expectations Exceeded
Okay, England is still pretty hit-and-miss at one-day cricket. No-one I spoke to was willing to admit predicting winning the Ashes, so anyone who said the 50-over side would suddenly turn into masters of the white-ball universe would probably have been told to wake up. But as British indie band Theaudience said, "A Pessimist is Never Disappointed".
After the sacking of Peter Moores and faced with the prospect of another summer of safety-first 1970s one-day tactics, with the captain declaring something like "we want to build a good foundation," what we instead got was tactics that resembled, and were more exciting than, a game of life-size Jenga. Wickets tumbled, it was noisy and chaotic, but no-one got vilified by his team-mates for trying big shots that didn't come off. Instead, England looked fearless.
First tourists New Zealand, nominally the warm-up act for its noisier Antipodean neighbour, led by the genuinely fearless Brendon McCullum, looked stunned, as if the school librarian had turned up to the graduation ball wearing a Herve Leger dress. Eoin Morgan, the England one-day captain, might have struggled for form personally, but he led a no-fear, no-excuses team that broke English stereotypes of enforced mediocrity.
3. The Heartening Comebacks
Along with Morgan, who took the unusual and some would say reprehensible step of resting from county duties for several weeks to recharge his body and get his game back together, other players saw improvements in their form. It's fair to say that many hearts were in mouths when James Anderson announced he was injured and would miss the fourth Ashes test. England's bowling talisman's place was guaranteed if fit, and this was a major problem.
Except that Mark Wood and Steven Finn filled in perfectly well in the Ashes-clinching rout of Australia in that penultimate match of the series. This was particularly worth celebrating for admirers of Finn, a traditional fast-bowler in the sense that he is incredibly tall, possesses a withering stare, and is an intimidating human being when jogging up to the wicket to deliver.
Finn had seen his game crumble due to over-coaching, with indecision and poor technique the result, it seemed, of too many tweaks and changes to his bowling action by England's meddling coaching staff. He went back to county cricket, reverted to his natural game, and returned to England around a year and a half after first being deemed "unselectable." Heartening stuff.
4. The Selection Dilemmas We All Talk About
In a newspaper comment section after his excellent knock in the most recent England-Australia one-day international, a commenter could be seem lamenting that James Taylor "seems to be banned from the test team, for some reason." Taylor, often used in England's short-form teams, had been overlooked in favour of Yorkshire's Jonny Bairstow for the test side, after the latter had had a flying start to the county season.
Whatever the justification for Bairstow's selection, or for picking Taylor instead, it's great that competition among potential England cricketers is again so fevered that we can talk about different options. There was a time when england seemed like a closed club, with internationals on central contracts, and county players' performances ignored. No longer, and that is something that increases the potential size of the selection pool for Trevor Bayliss and his fellow selectors.
5. Tactical Variation
At Old Trafford this week, one of the prime reasons behind England's one-day win was the use of two spinners, something successive selection panels have been reticent about in the past. Adil Rashid arguably merited a place in the test team, but had to bide his time; a superb season for county champions Yorkshire made it impossible to ignore him. Moeen Ali continued his upward curve, and now looks like a genuine all-rounder with a strong cricketing brain.
The change to two spinners, no matter how short-term it might be, shows a new ability to think outside the box, as does the sometimes unconventional field placement that, in recent weeks, has worked superbly.
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