It only seems to be a couple of months since I suggested on this website that the answer to England’s captaincy problems might be Sam Billings; and that Ben Stokes couldn’t be expected to take it on after his recent mental health problems, and the risk of undermining his own game.
We have just watched a team – fundamentally the same timid outfit that was trounced in Australia and West Indies – take Test champions New Zealand to the cleaners in three matches. Each of the games fluctuated in the fashion of the greatest Test matches and each was evenly poised until England’s batsmen embarked on their monumental fourth innings chases.
Stokes has been magnificent. He has rightly stated that if cricket isn’t entertaining the boards have no right to charge for admission, and he has matched those words uncompromisingly with his approach. The players have been enjoying themselves – apparent from the body language so different from the hangdog losers they were so very recently. The confidence he has shown in his own leadership has rubbed off on them and they have been transformed. Who says that cricket isn’t played mainly in the mind?
The new skipper has, of course, made the odd tactical mistake – generally in the cause of trying something a bit off the wall – but his team didn’t wilt in the field even when chasing large New Zealand scores, and quite often his eccentric looking ideas brought a result. And some of his actions have been brilliant, if only for the message implied to the players involved: bringing Matt Parkinson on on a seamer’s paradise just in time to take his first test wicket; transforming Jack Leach into a match-winning spinner just by showing a bit of faith. Root would have preferred someone – anyone – else.
Above all, however, Stokes should be commended for saying whatever he said to the death-defying Bairstow and giving him a definite slot in the batting order, even if it did involve the unlikely expedient of sending Pope in first down (which hasn’t worked out to badly). Stokes has also put smiles on the faces of Anderson and Broad who hadn’t seemed to be enjoying themselves much, and of Root himself whose carefree batting has been a reward in itself.
Credit, I am sure, also goes to McCullum, and to be fair to Rob Key also, for this imaginative appointment. But it was Stokes who did it in the dressing room and on the filed. Hallelujah.
No doubt we should be bracing ourselves for a few more spectacular collapses, and perhaps we should learn to live with them. There were enough calls for Bairstow’s head after the first Test when he was out rashly for single figure scores in both innings. Look what happened there. So let us just enjoy it and be entertained. Morgan’s team has succeeded through a similar approach; the occasional banana skin is part of the deal.
It will be fascinating to see what the selectors do next. Persevere with Crawley? Obviously he was told to cast of his cares and go for it; there is a lot of talent there to work with. Stick with the winning combination? Abandon the rotation policy?
And here’s a conundrum for them. Imagine (if only) a situation where Anderson, Broad, Archer, Woakes, Sam Curran, Potts, Woods, Saqib, both Overtons (no doubt Toby Roland Jones would be able to suggest a few more names) were all fit and available. Which way would that go?