If there were any doubts England’s aggressive style of Test cricket were filtering down through the ranks below the national side, they were dispelled by England Lions under a cloudless Canterbury sky as they did their level best to grind South Africa into the ground ahead of the first Test at Lord’s next week.
The clarion call of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum for domestic players to embrace the free-spirited batting adopted by Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Ben Stokes and the rest of the England Test side was well and truly heard in Kent as England Lions racked up 672 runs in their first innings against South Africa, headlined by the brisk centuries of Harry Brook and Ben Duckett.
Brook, who is hammering at the door of a starting place in England’s XI, displayed his wares with an entertaining 140 off 170 runs, largely in a partnership with Duckett, who plundered 145 off 168, in 191-run partnership that perhaps left South Africa’s bowlers feeling somewhat relieved this tour match does not have the First Class status that would reflect on their records.
All week, England players have echoed the national side’s mantra of self-expression and the liberation it has inspired; it’s as though a switch has been flicked and the results will undoubtedly please Brendon McCullum, who has been a keen spectator at the Spitfire ground.
“It was perfectly summed up yesterday afternoon and today I think,” said Ben Duckett. “Potentially, in an England Lions red ball game you wouldn’t have seen half the shots we’ve seen over the last day and a half and it’s people expressing themselves and putting people under pressure.
Duckett was dropped three times during his innings, when he was on 59, 70 and 95. On the second occasion he reverse swept Maharaj only for Glenton Stuurman to shell a reasonably straightforward chance at deep backward point, but the change in attitude meant he felt comfortable with taking the risk of such shots, even if the catch had been taken.
“I got dropped reverse sweeping and I know if I walked back in today, that whole dressing room would have said that’s a great option for me,” Duckett said. “That kind of backing that if you want to take a risk and it doesn’t come off, if it’s your option then it’s quite nice to have that backing.
“I think when that backing is in the dressing room, more often than not you will go and play that shot well.
“So yeah, it’s just an exciting time to be to be an England cricketer.”
South Africa, who trail by 180 runs and were 59 for 3 at stumps on day three, know this is a dress rehearsal for the style of play they will likely face at Lord’s and Aiden Markram, who took 6-91 off 16 overs, believes the match is good preparation for the first Test, albeit a punishing one.
“I think it’s going to be much of a muchness or much of the same because their Test team has been playing that brand of cricket now for a while and been doing really well playing that aggressive way,” said Markram. “So it was nice for us to be put under that pressure today and see how the guys responded to it.
“The guys were a bit rusty coming into this game, but hopefully they can keep getting better throughout the build up to the Test series and develop plans and then execute those plans when under the pump by the way that the English play.”
Duckett, who plundered 21 boundaries in his innings and was particularly aggressive against spin, believes England’s aggressive style could suck South Africa and other teams into trying to meet fire with fire, and make them vulnerable, although it was likely tired minds contributing to the loss of three early wickets in South Africa’s second innings, two of them falling to Ollie Robinson.
“Yeah, potentially,” Duckett said. “And I think you know, when you’re playing like that all day, and you just go so far ahead, and I think they’re watching you bat, probably thinking ,oh, this pitch is flat.
“And then we’ve got our fresh bowlers like Olly Robinson coming in bowling the way they were, I think we were always gonna get a couple tonight.
“But you know, when you’re so far ahead of the game, it’s never as flat as it seems when you’ve got to go out there and you’re 230 behind, so I think the first three days we’ve just been superb.”
But Markram said South Africa have already spoken about not falling into the trap of playing England’s game.
“Yeah, I think teams might fall into that trap,” admitted Markram. “We’ve actually had chats about it already, about not falling into the trap. Backing the way that we play, backing our processes and game plans, especially if it’s bat in hand, and not feeling that we have to play the way that they play.
“I don’t think we should try to replicate that. I think we’ve got our own brand that we play in the way that we’ve been playing now for a couple of years and I think we’ve got to back that.
“Their brand of cricket is in their change room, and that’s what they back in and we’ve got a different brand and I don’t think I see our team falling into the trap of playing the same way as they play.
“There’s a lot of experience that is in the change room and that experience is able to tell you not to fall into that trap.
“I think inexperience could potentially lead you into that trap, but we’ve had really good chats about it, like we’re gonna play our own game plan and the way that we play the game and we’re going to have to see how it unfolds after that.