Brendon McCullum suggests England not hard enough against South Africa

Brendon McCullum suggests England not hard enough against South Africa

Amid the fallout from England’s defeat in the first Test – one that left Lord’s empty on the fourth day and afforded South Africa a few more Castle lagers on Friday night – the message from Brendon McCullum was simple: his players did not go hard enough.

Given the evaporation of 20 wickets in 82.4 overs across the two innings – England rolled for scores of 165 and 149 by an attack described as “relentless” by Ben Stokes – it is an assessment from the head coach that may induce bristling in some quarters. After all, they still scored the runs they did muster at a none-too-sluggish 3.8 per over.

But much as with the backing of Zak Crawley, a player who in normal circumstances might have been humanely whipped out of the firing line by now, McCullum sees things differently: those numbers are simplistic and do not reflect certain passages where in his mind England retreated from their stated desire to take the positive option.

“I guess one of the messages we will be talking about is did we go hard enough with our approach?” said McCullum, when asked about the discussions to be had before Thursday’s second Test at Old Trafford. “Could we maybe go a little harder and try to turn some pressure back on the opposition as well?

“When the game was in the balance and a couple of spells from their boys were testing, we could maybe have been a little braver to be able to turn some pressure back on the opposition – in both innings.

“For us, we’ve got an idea of how we want to play. And the skipper and myself are very strong with our belief and what we think will give this English side the greatest opportunity to become a very good cricket team and win more games of Test cricket.”

McCullum dislikes the term Bazball, believing it to be far too reductive, but whatever the name of the project it is clear the tenets will not be changing. After all, a ledger that read one win from 17 in Test cricket not long ago now reads four wins from five this summer, even if he claimed results are not a topic of dressing-room conversation.

“I know we’re judged by them and ultimately we live and die by them when it comes to your jobs and things,” said McCullum. “But we don’t think like that. For us it’s about the approach and it’s about the language we use in the dressing room, and it’s about how we try to ensure we’ve got total buy-in from the guys.”

In fairness, only a couple of dismissals could be attributed to misplaced aggression while the game was still live as a contest. It may simply be that until the support cast are able to post healthy totals when Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow miss out – the Yorkshire pairing were kept quiet at Lord’s – consistency will remain elusive.

McCullum also wondered whether England’s collective “bravery” was affected by batting first: when they chased down targets of 275, 298, 296 and 378 against New Zealand and India, the equations, if not the task, were straightforward. If nothing else, this slightly odd shortcoming sets up another intriguing toss at Old Trafford.

There will be no additional practice before then despite two extra days off and, going by McCullum’s early thoughts, changes to the XI will be minimal. Ollie Robinson is pushing hard for a return after taking five South African wickets for the Lions but it sounded as if Crawley, averaging 16.4 this summer and fresh from a scratchy second-innings 13 that ended with a premeditated sweep, will go again.

McCullum said: “After a loss, you always sit there and go: ‘Can we replace this person? Or that person?’ But you have got to think about the overall package as well.

“I look at a guy like Zak and his skillset is not to be a consistent cricketer. He’s not that type of player, but he is put in that situation because he has a game which means, when he gets going, he can win matches for England. We have got to be really positive around the language we use with him and be really consistent with the selections around that as well, and keep giving guys opportunities.

“He’s a tough fella, Zak. Selection loyalty is important because not only does it build loyalty with the guys in the side, it builds loyalty for the guys on the outside knowing that when their time does come, they are going to be afforded the same.”

The dogmatic thinking applies to the bowling tactics also, chiefly the short-ball plan to the tail that was so impressively handled by South Africa’s lower order and added 116 runs for their last four wickets. “You want opposition sides around the world to know when the tail comes in you’re going to go after them,” said McCullum.

One issue here is that with Jofra Archer and Mark Wood long-term absentees, England do not possess the raw pace to return fire against opponents such as Anrich Nortje. Stokes has the ability to bring some extra grunt but continues to grimace more than Albert Steptoe because of his chronic left knee problem.

McCullum fancied his captain would keep charging “through brick walls” in spite of this. Much like the project as a whole, one that has delivered four thrilling wins but will test the patience of onlookers, it remains a case of running towards the danger.

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