When cricket lovers discuss this new England, they rave about the batting. So fearless! Five an over! All day long! Sometimes even seven! And everybody at it (except Ben Foakes, the designated driver). If fast scoring was all Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum had brought us, it would be quite something. But they would not have won nine Tests out of 10.
The second most exciting thing about this new era, and perhaps the most significant, is that England keep bowling their opponents out. Whether they’re facing New Zealand, India, South Africa or Pakistan, every time Stokes’s England take the field, they come back with all 10 wickets. The only time they didn’t collect 20 in a match was against South Africa at Lord’s in August, when the batters blew it and England lost by an innings. It really is All Or Nothing.
Taking 20 wickets is nearly always an achievement, but doing it in Pakistan is special. The only other tourists ever to go there and grab 60 wickets in a three-Test series were Sri Lanka in 1999-2000. And they had a magician – Muttiah Muralitharan, who took 26 of those wickets at an average of just under 20. Stokes had Jack Leach, who took 15 at 44.
England even managed 20 wickets in the first Test at Rawalpindi, on a pitch so flat that it was given two demerit points by the International Cricket Council. The official verdict was “below average”, which is ICC-speak for “mind-numbingly dull”. And still Stokes made things happen, dismissing Pakistan for 579 and 268.
For the finale at Karachi, he set himself an extra challenge: to win a Test without either Stuart Broad (at home on paternity leave, though working for Sky) or Jimmy Anderson (rested after starring in the series win). England had not won a Test without at least one of these two since 2007, before Broad’s Test debut, way back in the age of Harmison, Hoggard and Sidebottom.
Cricket reveals character, people say. But when cricketers have more than one role, they may show more than one character. Stokes the batter is often more hot-headed, less canny and tenacious, than Stokes the bowler (except in World Cup finals, when his personas are apt to swap places).
As a man-manager, he seems to treat all his troops the same, dispensing smiles and back-slaps, pumping up their tyres, banishing the fear of failure. But there’s a telling difference in the way he manages cricket’s two tribes, the batters and the bowlers.
The batters are handled with kid gloves. They can go 16 innings without a half-century, as Zak Crawley did this year, and still be breezily assured of Stokes’s backing. Under his regime, only one unforced change has been made in the top five. That was when Alex Lees was dropped after 10 successive Tests. An old-school opener, Lees tried to change his spots but only moved from the slow lane (27 runs per hundred balls under Joe Root) to the middle (55 under Stokes).
For the tour of Pakistan, Stokes, McCullum and their boss, the ECB’s managing director, Rob Key, replaced Lees with Ben Duckett, who was in danger of becoming one of English sport’s long list of lost talents. Duckett repaid their faith by sweeping all before him and finishing the series with a strike rate of 96, even better than England’s highest scorer, Harry Brook (93).
Stokes treats his bowlers with less indulgence. The only seamer he has never left out is himself. The specialist bowlers for his first Test as official captain were Anderson, Broad and two debutants – Matthew Potts and Matt Parkinson, a concussion sub for Leach. Potts’s solid seam-up contributed to Stokes’s first few wins, but by the autumn he had been eased aside in favour of Ollie Robinson. Parkinson’s leg-spin vanished without trace.
The captain can even be ruthless with bowlers who are legends. After reinstating the old firm as England’s new-ball pair, he demoted Broad to third seamer, behind Robinson (and rightly so). For that Rawalpindi road he assembled an attack that was, like the much-loved song by Dawes, A Little Bit Of Everything: three seamers and four spinners, including two more debutants, Liam Livingstone and Will Jacks. When injury befell Livingstone, a six-for was somehow conjured out of Jacks’s occasional off-breaks.
In the space of three weeks, Stokes has already won three overseas Tests as captain. That is the same as Graham Gooch managed in three years, the same as Ian Botham, Bob Willis, Alec Stewart and Andrew Flintoff won between them in 28 Tests abroad.
How does he do it? Partly by giving the batters a licence to thrill: in Pakistan, England made 104 more runs than their hosts in 207 fewer overs, which handed the bowlers time to take all those wickets. But it’s far more than that, as you can see by watching Stokes in the field.
He radiates energy and intent. He tries everything: five slips, leg slips, no slips, three silly mid-ons. He changes the bowling about twice as often as expected. He is right on it, the whole time. He is a boss, and it makes all the difference.