If Brendon McCullum’s bold new era is an illusion it is a persuasive one

Shortly after half past five a wild and barbarous noise consumed Headingley, the sort that brings local residents to their windows and the day-trippers in the hospitality boxes streaming out on to the balconies.

A few of the dozing members in the pavilion may even have been stirred from their evening slumbers. Out in the middle Stuart Broad was pumping his arms like a preacher. England’s slip cordon were clapping in time, beating out a fearsome tribal rhythm.

All around, spectators quaked and convulsed with the rapture of the chosen. They knew that New Zealand were still ahead of the game, that a long and thorny road lay ahead. But they also knew that you don’t go to church to drown. You go to be saved.

Songs of salvation and songs of praise; a pulpit and a congregation in perfect unison; an epiphany under grey skies. Also – in fairness – some canny seam bowling by Matt Potts and an old ball that did a bit after tea. We can pick through the entrails of this side, argue about whether 55 for six or 360 all out is the truest version of themselves, speculate about whether England’s bold new era consists of anything more substantial than a populist rebrand and some pancake-flat pitches. In a way it hardly matters. England are 2-0 up against the world champions and sniffing a clean sweep. If it’s an illusion, then it’s a staggeringly persuasive one.

The day began with a tinge of disappointment for Jamie Overton, an entertaining little thrash by Broad and a small lead. Was Overton a little passive in those opening overs? What if he had tried to channel the energy of Friday evening rather than going 12 balls without scoring? Could Jonny Bairstow have gone even harder, even bigger, if Broad had tried to give him more of the strike? Again, who cares. Brendon McCullum is a gambler and a gambler doesn’t dwell on their used betting slips. We move on.

And so England take the field and – not to put too fine a point on it – bowl an awful lot of tosh. The struggling Tom Latham gets a platter of delicious half-volleys. The Jack Leach new ball experiment doesn’t really work. Ben Stokes brings himself on as an enforcer and disappears for 30 runs in four overs. At tea New Zealand are 125 for one and threatening to run away with the game.

Yet throughout all this there is still a menacing energy to England with the ball. Stokes’s field settings are elaborate and deliberately provocative: two short covers for Broad to Kane Williamson, at other times a leg gully and a deeper conventional gully for the catch off the splice. The bouncer trap is tried, withdrawn, tried again, withdrawn again. Leach gets another go. Joe Root tries a few leg-spinners. Broad keeps moving the ball around in his fingers, like a guitarist cycling through chords. Not every plan works. But at no point is there a sense of drift. England are still thinking, still believing, still probing.

And in the final session, the tide turns. Stokes boldly turns to Overton after tea and is rewarded with Latham’s edge. The next ball Devon Conway is clattered on the helmet by a frightening bouncer. It’s chilly, there’s rain in the air and a bracing wind blowing over the Pennines, but Stokes is wearing short sleeves and Overton the same. Imagine playing your first Test match and coming into this team, at this time. Imagine the sense of liberation and empowerment. Watching from afar, you wonder if Jamie’s brother Craig (eight Tests, six losses) is imagining similarly.

Potts is the real thing. We can see that already. The energy he brings to the crease, the commitment to a plan, the effort he puts on the ball, the natural instinct for weakness. He picks up Williamson two short of 50, Broad whistles one past the edge of Daryl Mitchell and for the next half-hour Headingley is alight. Every ball brings hands on heads, crowd catches, fielders ambushing the ball as if they are pulling a toddler out of the road. And yet for all the sense of drama there is a seam of coolness running through this side, too. Despite numerous deafening appeals, England left the field without having used a single review.

What does any of this mean? Does it have to mean anything at all? Perhaps at this juncture it is necessary to point out that England still have a frail top order, still have a wildly unbalanced attack, still drop too many catches, still might lose this game. That playing up to the home crowd is all very well when you actually have a home crowd. Abroad, where patience and attrition are demanded, where Test matches do not simply break open like a coconut, we may see a very different side of this team. But as any gambler will tell you, the past brings only regrets. The future remains unwritten. For once this is an England team that deserves to be described in the present tense.