England’s ruthless approach under Ben Stokes yielding rich dividends

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Ben Stokes and James Anderson having a conversation during England's match.

ICC/Getty

England’s ruthless approach under Ben Stokes yielding rich dividends

Under the leadership of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, the England Test team seem like having a knack for pulling off games one would think they are going to lose. Out of nowhere, their squad look like they are born to fight, born not to give up.

Ahead of the Trent Bridge Test, England were 1-0 up in the three-match series following a hard-fought five-wicket victory against the reigning world champions New Zealand at Lord’s. There, they rode on Joe Root’s unbeaten 115 to see off a stiff target of 279 in 78.5 overs. Despite building a new regime under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, the English side were not the favourites on paper. Yet, they brought New Zealand to their knees with an innings of class and sheer determination.

Then, what followed at Trent Bridge was absolutely miraculous. Similar to the series opener, New Zealand went to bat first again but did not disappoint this time. In the absence of Kane Williamson, they piled 553 in the first innings. To give a fitting response, Root stepped up again, scoring 176 off just 211 balls to take England to 539. Coming at No. 3, Ollie Pope gave Root the required support, hitting 145 off 239 balls. At the end of their innings, England’s scoring rate read well over four runs an over, which clearly meant they were looking for a result, despite having the lead in favour.

New Zealand, too, rose up to the challenge. They posted 284 in the second innings to set a target of 299 for England in a maximum of 72 overs. The tourists started off brilliantly, reducing their opponent to 56/3 and then 93/4 in 25.2 overs. England’s all top-four batters – Alex Lees, Zak Crawley, Pope and Root – returned to the pavilion.

At this point, no one could have predicted what they were about to witness from there on. The pair of Stokes and the then sleeping giant Jonny Bairstow were responsible for rebuilding the innings. At the same time, with more than 57 overs still remaining, the chances of defeat were easily on the cards.

But Stokes and Bairstow had other plans in mind. They reached 139/3 at tea break, requiring 160 more in 38 overs. Then, what happened after the interval was beyond anyone’s imagination.

Keeping the game situation aside, Stokes and Bairstow started to bat aggressively from both ends. The latter, in the process, notched up a jaw-dropping hundred – his ninth in Tests – in just 77 balls, the second-fastest by an Englishman. When he left the field after plundering 136 off 92 balls, laced with seven sixes and 14 fours, England required just 27 more runs from almost 27 overs.

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Stokes, meanwhile, continued to prosper, scoring an unbeaten 70-ball 75 to take his past the finishing line. They took 50 overs to get the job done, that too after losing their top four early. More importantly, it was against a bowling attack which included Tim Southee and Trent Boult – two of the best in the business across the world. Thus, June 14 will surely be celebrated as a red-letter day for English cricket from now on.

I’m incredibly proud of the way I went about that innings. Because it wasn’t just a case of ‘let’s go gung-ho’. It was pick your times, pick your moments, then try to change the game. I'm struggling to find words for what we witnessed out there. It was just phenomenal. This blows away Headingley, it blows away Lord's and the World Cup final. Just emotionally and the enjoyment of every minute I had on that field, it was incredible. I can't quite wrap my head around how we've chased 299 with 22 overs left on day five of the Test match when we had to bowl 15 overs this morning. That's never going to happen again. But if it does, it is probably us who are going to do it."

Ben Stokes after Trent Bridge Test.

Among the England fans, Brendon McCullum, who was appointed as their country’s head coach for the Test squad, is a hero. Whatever changes he and his support staff made in these two matches so far in the squad, have worked.

Start with recalling Stuart Broad and James Anderson – England’s all-time highest wicket-takers in Tests – on the roster. Both veterans were dropped from the squad in England’s last tour in West Indies, when Root was in charge, along with Chris Silverwood. Stokes, right after becoming the captain of the ship, made clear the blockbuster duo have still got a lot to offer at the highest level.

The second impactful change that England made was bringing Matthew Potts straight into the mix. Potts, 23, is having a dream County Championship season with Durham, hunting 35 wickets in just six matches, and Stokes and McCullum did not have any hesitation to give him his maiden international cap at Lord’s, ahead of Craig Overton. Potts kept his promise and finished with match figures of 7-68.

The next change and perhaps the most significant one that England made was playing with Alex Lees at the top. Under Silverwood, they had been lacklustre as a batting unit for over 18 months, and there was absolutely no support provided for Root. Moreover, they tried many openers but almost no one got them off to a steady start. In Lees, England have certainly found one who can be trusted, at least for some time being.

The last key decision that seemed like a masterstroke by McCullum and Co. was the promotion of Ollie Pope to No. 3. Due to disastrous starts match after match, Root had to walk into the middle early in almost every game. Pope, on the other hand, has been often compared with the legendary Ian Bell because of their similar batting stance. However, he was yet to prove his worth on the international stage. No. 3 seems like a preferred batting position for him, especially after the Trent Bridge Test and simultaneously, it would allow Root to play more freely.

It is worth a mention that Steve Smith, Virat Kohli, Sachin Tendulkar, and many more, who is considered to be their respective side’s best players, in present or in the past, prefer to bat at No. 4. 

Earlier this year, England had a miserable Ashes campaign in Australia, where they were humiliated with a 4-0 scoreline. It brought an end to Silverwood’s tenure. Then, they were embarrassed again in the Caribbean, returning with a 1-0 series defeat, which eventually triggered Root to step down. But all of that seems like history at present, courtesy of back-to-back humongous performances by the newly-formed side, led by Stokes.

In terms of England’s perspective, the changes were much required. They will be keen to keep the momentum going in Headingley in the third and final Test against New Zealand. Irrespective of whatever happens there, they would still be considered as a squad who have transformed themselves into a high-flyer from a depleted side in little time.

Picking the best possible lineup always makes sense. Stokes and McCullum have been doing just that, although their fearsome style of play is quite unique, which actually has brought a lot of attention.

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