IN GOOD CONSCIENCE

Cricket's a blast again after struggling English don Black Caps

IT IS UNLIKELY that many Singaporeans are planning on a Saturday night to watch cricket, even if the final one-day blast between England and New Zealand is available on your subscription channels.

A pity because right now, the way that the New Zealand Black Caps approach their game, and the way that England are responding, are pushing the boundaries between mind and body - and at the same time taking sport back to the days when if a man beats you fair and square on the field, you rush to congratulate him.

Far fetched? Seeing is believing.

The tempo is merciless against the bowlers and, helped by relatively flat pitches in a generally dry English summer, the run chase is thrilling raucous crowds up and down England.

Two years ago, when an ageing wicket-keeper Brendon McCullum was handed the captaincy of New Zealand in bitter circumstances, his team collapsed to 45 all out against South Africa.

It was the lowest Test score in 40 years. McCullum went up to his hotel room in Cape Town and opened a beer. He wouldn't have been the best of company.

Nevertheless, three men knocked on his door. They were the coach Mike Hesson, the assistant coach and the team manager. What followed wasn't an inquest, rather a statement of intent.

The Black Cats could be buried as a cricketing nation, or play a different way.

"It couldn't get anywise!" McCullum reflected this week.

As the beer flowed, a new spirit was born. New Zealand would attack, or be damned.

Within two years, the country's cricket team have risen to third in the world rankings - and first in the minds of many of us who wished (and wish) that sport could be played with a devil-may-care attitude.

Around about the time that New Zealand were reaching the final of the one-day international World Cup in Australia in March (after losing six times in the semi-finals before), England were already at home, routed and attempting a root-and-branch new approach to their game.

Andrew Strauss, the new England cricket supremo hired to reverse the humiliation, spoke of New Zealand in his opening address. He meant the All Blacks, the rugby players who have put this nation of 4.5 million on top of world rugby.

But the new style of cricket that England, with six new players out of the starting XI, would adopt is the Black Caps. Time was when chasing down 200 to win a 50-over contest was the limit.

Today, as England and New Zealand stand all-square at two wins apiece in their five-game series, it is much more likely to require 400 runs to feel safe in the deciding contest at Durham in northern England.

England came from behind to thrash 350 runs from 44 overs on Wednesday. It was the fourth successive time that England had bludgeoned their way to more than 300 in the limited-overs game, breaking all kinds of records in the process.

Eoin Morgan, the captain who couldn't bat his way out of a paper bag at the World Cup in February and March, hit 113 and Joe Root, a rising batsman, 106 not out as they overhauled the target set by the New Zealanders.

As they left the field, several of the opponents ran after the batters to congratulate them.

McCullum was first among them. His own example is to open the innings by throwing caution to the wind and hitting out in all directions. His credo is hit out or get out, and if that sounds belligerent, it comes with the skipper blasting away at one end and younger batsmen like the serene Kane Williamson stroking fours and sixes at the other end.

The tempo is merciless against the bowlers and, helped by relatively flat pitches in a generally dry English summer, the run chase is thrilling raucous crowds up and down England.

It is the storm after the calm, and McCullum reckons that 400 runs in 50 overs isn't the limit by any means. He can foresee 500 "easily" and given the way that another of his young colleagues - spin bowler Mitchell Santner - hammered 28 runs off one over on Wednesday, you can glean that the New Zealand captain is not exactly innumerate in his calculation.

Maybe it dates me but I'm enjoying with boyish enthusiasm the manner in which England's so recently shamed cricketers have picked themselves up off the floor and accepted this gauntlet from their antipodean cousins.

And (this definitely dates me) it's even more thrilling seeing men lose a game and run over to shake the hands of their conquerors.

Even if I hadn't heard McCullum say on the BBC that this sets up the final game nicely, I would have imagined that was his mind- set.

As the game on Wednesday went away from him, McCullum resembled an old gunslinger.

He chewed on his gum, he called up every bowler he felt might break the Morgan-Root partnership and he played hunches.

Both sides are playing one-day cricket at the tempo of Indian Premier League big bash, which in turn makes one think of those wonderful Sri Lanka cricketers - Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene.

Those gentlemen flashed the bat like swashbuckling swordsmen of the Errol Flynn era, except that he was playing romantic lead roles in Hollywood film fantasy.

But if I've done nothing to interest you in the game of cricket - which incidentally hots up with an Ashes series in the full version of Test matches in a few weeks' time - allow me to put one thought in your mind.

Imagine what would happen if football became an open game in which players opened their minds to fearless attacking instincts. Let's say Brazil turning around that 7-1 fiasco against Germany last year by going for 7-all.

Ridiculous? Of course but ridicule is a state of mind. New Zealand experienced it in Cape Town and McCullum figured that they had nothing to lose by going all out for make or break.

Psychologists preach positive mental attitude - New Zealand play it.

stsports@sph.com.sg

5th ODI: England v New Zealand

Singtel TV Ch123 & StarHub Ch236, 5.30pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2015, with the headline 'Cricket's a blast again after struggling English don Black Caps'. Print Edition | Subscribe