England’s capacity for unlikely victory can leave you lost for words | Andy Bull

England’s capacity for unlikely victory can leave you lost for words | Andy Bull

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he Observer’s official policy about the use of swear words is right there in the official style guide, between the entries on Swaziland and swingeing. “We are more liberal than most newspapers,” it says, however, “we should use such words only when absolutely necessary to the facts of a piece, or to portray a character in an article; there is almost never a case in which we need to use a swearword outside direct quotes.” Which, yes, all makes good sense. Only, I’d guess the person who wrote it never had to take on the job of writing about this England team on a tight deadline.

The old Somerset quick RC Robertson-Glasgow once said the great batsman Frank Woolley was easy to watch, difficult to bowl to and impossible to write about. “When you bowled to him there weren’t enough fielders, when you wrote about him there weren’t enough words.” What words are there left to use about this England? Not many fit to print. Certainly the ones I find I’m muttering to myself (or shouting out loud) while I’m watching them veer from the brink of miserable defeat to glorious victory are a lot more to the point than the ones you’re reading here.

Old Trafford ’20 wasn’t anything like as extraordinary as what happened at Headingley last summer, but it was still utterly bewildering, full of unpredictable twists and turns. In the space of a day’s play, England lost this match, won it back, lost it a second time and then, in the end, won it again, thanks in large part to a preposterously unlikely 139-run partnership between Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes, one of them struggling to prove he could cut it as a Test match batsman, the other in such a dismal rut it made his partner’s run of low scores look as if it was a glorious streak of form.

Woakes hadn’t passed fifty since he scored his only Test hundred, against India at Lord’s in 2018. Buttler had done it only once in his last year of Test cricket. That was in the third Test against West Indies last week but even so, after the match Buttler has had here, it was beginning to look as if his time was up. He had a lousy time in the field, where he dropped two catches and missed a run-out and a stumping. The mistakes felt all the more embarrassingly conspicuous because of how well his opposite number, Mohammad Rizwan, did the job for Pakistan.

But here they were, England’s last two half-decent batsmen, together in the middle with the team five wickets down and 160 runs away from finishing the second-highest run chase anyone had ever pulled off in 136 years of Test cricket at this ground. The best of their batting had just been blown away in the space of half an hour’s cricket: Joe Root, caught behind off a vicious lifting delivery; Ben Stokes, caught behind off a googly that spun out of the rough and brushed his glove on its way through to the keeper; and Ollie Pope, who had played so brilliantly in the first innings, caught at gully off a nightmarish ball that leapt up off a length.

Well, it felt as if it was the right moment to walk the dog or put the kettle on. I should have known better. This England team seem to be at their best when the odds are at their longest. Whatever else they lack, it’s certainly not strength of character. And if Stokes was out already, his spirit was still there in the middle. As Root said later: “After last summer it is very hard to stop believing, because we know anything is possible.” Much more of this, and all us inveterate pessimists who follow them will start to think it too.

All of a sudden the score was rattling on at a run a ball. Buttler was in his element. The situation, he explained later, felt just like one of the one-day run chases in which he specialises. There was no need to second-guess what to do, no need to wonder how he ought to go about it. “I just had to focus on the here and now.” He said himself that he had thought if he didn’t get any runs then this would be his last Test. Given that his dad went into hospital overnight, he must have had an awful lot on his mind. But out there in the middle, it was all straightforward.

Test match batting came easy now he could kid himself into thinking it was no different to white ball cricket. Famously, Buttler sometimes uses a bat that has “fuck it” written on the handle, as a way of reminding himself how he wants to play. I think that counts as a direct quotation, but even if it didn’t, maybe it says something absolutely necessary about the character of this England team. It certainly does about the feelings of all of us who watch them.