Ben Stokes' mission to entertain has breathed new life into Test cricket
England’s 3-0 whitewash of world Test champions New Zealand has been a triumph on so many levels.
From the belief-fuelled deeds of Jonny Bairstow and Jack Leach to the gelling of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, as like-minded captain and coach, the victory has re-invigorated the public’s largely passive relationship with Test cricket and made them take notice once more of the priceless ruby in the sport’s crown jewels.
The verve and panache of the team’s heist, and it was a heist given New Zealand had strong positions in all three matches, has made for thrilling viewing with many veteran watchers and former players shaking their heads in disbelief at some of the pyrotechnics on show.
England’s run-rates went from 3.45 in the first Test to 4.7 at Trent Bridge to an incredible 5.41 in the last match at Headingley, that last figure not just pushing the envelope but shredding it.
As Australia captain, 20 years ago, Steve Waugh encouraged his team to score at four runs an over in a bid to ‘save’ Test cricket by making it more interesting to the general public.
They succeeded too, on occasion, but Waugh’s behest has proved largely unsustainable, until now.
Nobody can be sure where the ‘onward and upward’ cry from Stokes and McCullum will take matters but it makes this Friday’s one-off Test against India – something of a grudge match after their sudden departure last year – a mouthwatering prospect.
There won’t be any concessions. The team’s mission statement under Stokes and McCullum – ‘to entertain’ – has so far been kept like a Prelate’s promise. Entertain is the appropriate word, as England did not dominate New Zealand from start to finish.
Indeed, their opponents potentially had winning positions in all three matches. It is just that England’s counter-attacks, especially with the bat in the final innings, have been so brutal that New Zealand were overwhelmed – like the front-runner who collapses in a heap after five opponents have overtaken him with the finishing line in sight.
Incredibly, given the scoreline, front-running was not a position England found themselves in during the series and it will be interesting to see if their ‘no-backward-step’ approach to batting can work as well when leading.
There is a reason most teams like to chase totals in white-ball cricket rather than set them, and it is the difference between the known and the unknown.
Not that knowing a target seemed to influence Bairstow, for whom every ball at present seems an irritant to be despatched from his presence with power and disdain.
Destructive innings have been played in Test cricket before – by among others Ian Botham, Nathan Astle and Viv Richards. The difference here is Bairstow has delivered three humdingers in a row.
He has always had the range and power of shot just perhaps not the encouragement or self-belief to unleash them at the right moment.
Under Stokes and McCullum, Bairstow feels cherished and this has transferred itself to his shot selection, which is the absolute key to any innings, stodgy or freewheeling.
The same warm, fuzzy spell has also been cast over left-arm spinner Leach, after he took ten wickets at Headingley, a ground where seamers tend to dominate.
Actually the wickets, while important for England and Leach’s confidence, are only half the story. The other half is he bowled with great control, holding up one end without going for many runs, a vital role if Stokes is prevented from bowling his usual share of the overs due to his dodgy knee. England spinners are generally insecure souls (save for Graeme Swann) and Leach is no exception as his vapid bowling on the recent tour of the Caribbean showed.
Yet that uncertainty had disappeared in the last Test following Stokes’ handling of him – a curious mix of virtue signalling (bringing on the spinner during the first session of play), and bluff messages for Leach to man up (refusing to protect the boundaries after New Zealand’s batsmen attacked Leach and hit him over the top).
As it turned out, both of those ploys brought wickets and with them a strengthening trust between bowler and captain.
One man Stokes seems to trust implicitly is his Durham team-mate, Matthew Potts. With just three Tests to his name, Potts, 23, is already bowling like an old hand, his control of line and length, and with it his nerves, impressive in one so young.
Like most accurate bowlers he has a strong repeatable action. There is no aerodynamic chicanery as with the impressive Trent Boult, but he does enough from a high action, either way off the seam, for batsmen not to relax against him.
With Potts taking to Test cricket so assuredly and Ollie Pope among the runs again, a formidable team is starting to take shape.
Now if Jos Buttler could just be fitted in somehow.
Pioneer Eoin Morgan’s no-fear approach lit his World Cup-winning team’s fuse
Eoin Morgan was not England’s most clubbable captain, but his lack of sentiment alongside his laser focus helped to drag the country’s ailing white-ball teams from also-rans to world-beating thoroughbreds, a process that culminated in them winning the 2019 World Cup.
Dublin-born Morgan played for Ireland before deciding to qualify for England in 2009. It was the kind of rational decision talented Irish cricketers made back then and one he made a virtue of, becoming England’s white-ball captain in 2015 – a role he has now left following a prolonged dip in form.
Morgan was a pioneer, being one of the first batsmen to adopt a baseball style of striking the ball. By bending his knees and lowering his centre of gravity, he could use his hips to generate power into the shot. It worked, too, and one six Morgan struck in a T20 match against South Africa in 2009, remains one of the biggest hits I have ever seen.
The ‘no-fear’ cricket he instilled in his teams has now been adopted by England’s Test side, though it did not enable him to have a prolonged Test career. Morgan’s legacy is he turned England from a timid side into a much-feared one, a transformation for which his successor, be it Jos Buttler or Moeen Ali, will forever be grateful.
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