Restraint of Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes show England what is possible
For a while on Tuesday afternoon in Nottingham, it was possible to believe that all was golden in the world of England cricket.
Yes, it was a consolation goal. But, as Jos Buttler gave the strongest evidence yet that he can flourish as a Test player and Ben Stokes demonstrated the technique and temperament that this side have so lacked in recent times, it was just about possible to believe England could combine the application and flair that could render them both entertaining and successful.
It wasn't to last, of course. And the damage was too deep to be repaired. England still have serious problems in developing fast bowlers, spinners and batsmen with an attention span longer than a forgetful goldfish. They are, in many ways, in a fearful mess.
But, just for a while, as two of England's more exciting talents combined to produce the largest fourth-innings, fifth-wicket partnership in their Test history, it was possible to see some way out of the mess. It was possible to imagine a day when the talent was harnessed and optimised.
There was a lovely moment at the end of Buttler's innings at Trent Bridge when Virat Kohli, the India captain, ran up to congratulate him.
For one thing, it was a reminder of the improved relations between these sides. They reached a new low in the Test at this ground four years ago after an alleged altercation between James Anderson and Ravi Jadeja; an affair that dragged out for so long it should have become known as Jadeja-vu. Perhaps Kohli's gesture was also a reminder of the value of the IPL - many of these players have far greater empathy for one another having mixed during that tournament - and the fact that players do not have to abuse each other to play tough cricket.
Most pertinently, however, it was, perhaps, a sign that Kohli, for all his competitive qualities, recognises something special in Buttler. And that he recognised how tough the struggle had become and how significant this innings could turn out to be. On a level - the level of the simple cricket lover rather than the deeply competitive opposition captain - you imagine Kohli was even quite pleased for him.
There was a similar reaction from Stokes. Not only did he celebrate Buttler's century with as much emotion as he might his own but, when his partner was in the 90s, he twice gave him stern talks (and even a couple of friendly punches to the chest; nothing to worry about this time) in urging him to make his hard work count.
Because Buttler needed this innings. Kohli knew it, Stokes knew it and Buttler knew it, too. He was 23 Tests into a career that hadn't brought a century and, in this series, he was averaging 8.33. He really does enjoy the confidence and belief of the England management but you wonder if his own confidence was starting to ebb.
But in registering his maiden Test century - and his first century in first-class cricket for 50 months - Buttler may well have made an important psychological breakthrough. He may have proved to himself, as much as anyone else, that he can prosper at this level. And, in leaving 24 percent of the deliveries he received (the highest percentage in England's last 30 Test centuries, according to CricViz), he showed that he was learning one of the great truisms of first-class batting: the shots you don't play are every bit as important as those you do.
It was not flawless. He was dropped on 1 and might, had Kohli posted a gully or third slip, have perished on another couple of occasions. It would be disingenuous to pretend he has suddenly answered all the technical questions he faced; there will, no doubt, be tricky days in the future. But Kohli, too, has benefited from reprieves on the way to centuries this series. It doesn't invalidate all the success. It doesn't invalidate the concentration, the range of strokes or the discipline that was apparent in this innings.
The old-timers used to say it was competence that breeds success. But perhaps it can work the other way, too. Buttler has never really proved himself in first-class cricket the way players of an earlier generation were obliged to, but he has demonstrated great talent on the international stage and, so long as his mind isn't plagued by doubt, perhaps he can translate it to the Test game. This innings went along way to doing so.
Stokes, too, can look back on his half-century with some satisfaction. He may have the reputation as something of a blaster - of this side only Stuart Broad has a higher batting strike-rate in Test cricket - but here he demonstrated the other side of the game. The responsible side. The patient side.
None of his colleagues left so well, defended so compactly or demonstrated so much restraint. And that, in particular, is not a word you see associated with Stokes that often. Technically and temperamentally, this was an excellent innings.
You suspect Stokes felt he owed his side this performance. While he may well genuinely feel he did little wrong during the two minutes or so that was the focus of the court case - the jury accepted his explanation that he felt compelled to use force to protect himself and others - you suspect he knows, on a level, that he probably shouldn't have been hanging around outside shut nightclubs in the early hours of the morning.
And even if he doesn't accept that, you suspect he regrets the attention he has heaped on his team-mates. He knows that much of the attention they attracted in Australia - the Jonny Bairstow 'head-butt' nonsense; the Ben Duckett debacle; the curfews and talk of a drinking culture - stemmed back to that night in Bristol. Life became more complicated for all of them.
Stokes is not an especially eloquent fellow and you suspect that his desire - his desperation, even - to contribute to this team had resulted in a slightly underwhelming return to the side. But, presented with an almost hopeless position, he showed the rest of England's batsmen how these bowlers and these conditions could be combatted. Not by counter-attacking, but by compact defence, unerring concentration and a determination to sell his wicket as dearly as possible. It was arguably as good a technical innings as this match has seen.
None of this is intended to distract attention from what has been on the whole, a dismal performance. Buttler's century was, after all, the first by a member of England's top six in any of the eight Tests they've played this year. There's still no evidence of anyone improving in this environment and, while it may make sense for one of the selectors to watch the game on the basis that it helps them assess the mental state of players, it seems excessive that all three (Trevor Bayliss, Ed Smith and James Taylor) should be at Trent Bridge rather than assessing the mental - and physical - state of players in county cricket.
So, make no mistake, England have been thrashed. One good partnership doesn't make it all right. But it tends to be best if the autopsy waits until the patient has died.