I’ve just been to India with the cricketers from Harrow school, where I coach. There are some very strong players and a bit of depth in the first-team squad at the moment, which means I am lucky enough to be able to rotate players around.
I always encourage young players to be all-rounders – you want athletic cricketers who hopefully can contribute with the bat, the ball and in the field – and recently the talent and flexibility in the squad has given me the latitude I need to mix up the side and give more people opportunities. Of course it is one thing to do this with a school team and quite another to see it in a Test side, but England seem to be pushing this even further and really challenging traditional cricketstereotypes.
During the three Tests in Pakistan Ben Stokes opted for a spinner to open the bowling with the new ball. Such a tactic has been used many times as a one-off on a turning track but with England it became a policy, happening in three consecutive matches.
Ollie Pope kept wicket for England Under-19s but hadn’t done it for Surrey, yet he jumped into that role when circumstances meant some lateral thinking was required and he did a competent job.
Ben Duckett does not ordinarily open for his county. Not long ago batting at the top of the order was seen as a specialist position, particularly in first-class cricket, but again convention has been challenged, the player has bought into it, and it has so far proved extremely successful. Most remarkably of all, the 18-year-old debutant spinner Rehan Ahmed batted at No 3 in the final innings of the series.
I remember Graeme Hick being asked whether he wanted to open and he was adamant he preferred to bat at No 3. In my generation players were superstitious about their number and reluctant to move around the order, and often felt like a fish out of water when they were forced to. But in white-ball cricket players have become used to switching positions, and have now carried that attitude into the first-class game.
When the Dutch created a generation of footballers who had the technical and tactical flexibility to play in any position, it became known as Total Football. In cricket there has been a gradual change, but perhaps this year we have seen the evolution of Total Cricket, with England at the forefront.
Before England travelled to Pakistan I suggested that they would have to adapt to the attritional style of cricket required there when dealing with lower bounce and perhaps turn. Well they completely blew that out of the water. They have played with such freedom, not just to be more aggressive with the bat and in the field, but to think about the game in a different way.
They have just carried into Tests a mindset that started in Twenty20s, and which means that a young batter such as Harry Brook is happy to come down the wicket, very early on in his innings, to a guy who can turn the ball both ways, and hit him straight for six. It’s a combination of talent, confidence, and the gradual realisation that the modern cricket landscape is one with no horizons.
It has been a fabulous end to 2022, but there are fresh challenges ahead for England’s Test side. I was there when England last toured New Zealand in 2019 and it was so boring due to the two Tests being played on ridiculously flat wickets. Jofra Archer was bowled into the ground. The Kiwis won the first Test by an innings and drew the second.
They will be thinking now about what kind of surface would give them the best chance of beating an England side that have just shown they can win on flatter, dryer surfaces and I feel they would be best off trying to create conditions more akin to England, with seam and swing. It suits England’s bowlers just as much as it suits New Zealand’s, but it may be their best opportunity to put Stokes and his side on the back foot.
England’s thoughts might already be drifting to the summer, and a chance to regain the Ashes. Stokes and Brendon McCullum have created a very attacking batting lineup which just keeps coming at you. You get one aggressive, dangerous batter out and another one walks out to replace him.
Australia’s is a little more varied. There are players such as Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith who in first-class cricket are not afraid to occupy the crease and bat long, and others such as David Warner and Travis Head who look to play a few shots. It will be a fascinating series, and it is hard at this stage to pick a winner, but England’s best chance might be if the ball is swinging and seaming, conditions like those in 2015 when Stuart Broad took eight for 15 against the Australians at Trent Bridge.
Since Stokes took over as captain England seem to have had all the answers, but there are certainly difficult questions to come. One of them has spent the winter sitting at home recovering from a dislocated ankle and a leg broken in three places. Jonny Bairstow has to come back into the team, but it is clear also that Brook has to stay. It is just as well this is a generation of players happy to move around the order, because I could see Bairstow returning at No 1, at No 7 with the gloves, or anywhere in between. With England these days nothing is certain – except that it won’t be boring.