After a damaging 18-month period, there is reason for hope again as Ben Stokes leads the revival before the Ashes, writes Lawrence Booth.
The third ball of the fourth morning of the first Test at Lord’s felt like another death knell for English cricket. Ian Bell had edged a lazy drive to New Zealand’s stand-in wicketkeeper Tom Latham, and England were 74-3 in their second innings, still 60 runs short of making the tourists bat again.
The events of the previous 18 months flooded to the surface once more: the 5-0 defeat in Australia, the sacking of Kevin Pietersen and the mishandling of the fallout, the home defeat by Sri Lanka, the sacking as one-day captain of Alastair Cook, the disastrous World Cup, the sacking of managing director Paul Downton, the sacking of coach Peter Moores. Frankly, it was a wonder there was anyone left to sack.
Now in the first Test of seven in this northern summer, England were on the brink of losing to a team who had won only four of their previous 52 Tests in this country. Yes, New Zealand are a fast-improving side, but the headlines don’t generally leave much room for nuance. Honestly, could it get any lower than this?
The next two days would provide an answer that was as surprising as it was refreshing. Shortly after 6pm the following day, Cook’s team were celebrating a 124-run win that appeared to do rather more than it said on the tin. Not only had they seen off New Zealand, but they had reconnected with a public whose affections for English cricket had been stretched to breaking point.
One observer, reflecting on the New Zealanders’ unbending dedication to aggressive cricket, was reminded of Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who was commanding the French army at the First Battle of the Marne in 1914. ‘My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat,’ Foch is supposed to have said. ‘Situation excellent. I shall attack.’
It was an approach that would serve New Zealand well in the second Test at Headingley, where they scored at more than 4.5 an over to square a high-octane series, and wipe some of the gloss off the result at Lord’s – though not enough for Cook, still buoyant after that first Test win, to insist England could regain the Ashes.
The reason was this: Foch’s philosophy had applied just as easily to England on those last two days at Lord’s. And central to the attack was a young all-rounder who had spent much of his career nursing self-inflicted mishaps – from being sent home from a Lions tour because he had missed a curfew, to breaking a wrist after punching a locker after his dismissal in a Twenty20 international in Barbados.
Ben Stokes had not even made it to the World Cup, having scored 18 runs in 10 international innings in 2014, including six ducks. He was talented, yes: a century in Perth in only his second Test in December 2013 told us that. But he was in danger of being labelled a wastrel. And then came Lord’s.
The first innings had already reminded us of his potential. Coming to the crease with England in deep trouble at 30-4, he batted as if the crisis was a state of mind, adding 161 in 32 overs with Joe Root, a kindred spirit and an even classier batsman. In the end, Stokes had to settle for a 94-ball 92, an innings that seemed destined for the scrapheap of regret as New Zealand reached 523 and a lead of 134.
On that pivotal fourth day, Stokes had to wait a while after the dismissal of Bell. First, Root – who had made 98 in the first innings – joined Cook in a partnership that began to change the feel of the day. By the time Root pulled Matt Henry straight to fine leg to depart for 84, he and his captain had added 158, and England led by 98. The game remained in the balance.
But Stokes – New Zealand-born, fiery in the best red-headed tradition, and daubed with tattoos in the modern style – doesn’t pay much heed to nuance. He is a simple soul, at his best when least encumbered. Once, in Australia, he was asked at a press conference whether he enjoyed the ‘fray’. He looked puzzled. ‘What does that mean?’ It turned out he wasn’t joking.
Yet no word seems more appropriate: unpretentious, Anglo-Saxon, and four letters beginning with F. And, at Lord’s that day, the fray was precisely what Stokes enjoyed. One of those tattoos reads: ‘May people respect you, Trouble neglect you, Angels protect you, And heaven accept you’. In other words, he remains a work in progress. Headingley, where he made six and 29, was a reminder of that.
At Lord’s, however – driving, pulling and sweeping as if there was no tomorrow – Stokes reached three figures in 85 balls. It was the fastest Test century ever seen at the ground, and the fastest by an England batsman anywhere since Gilbert Jessop flayed the Australians for a 76-ball hundred at The Oval way back in 1902.
‘All things considered,’ wrote Wisden of Jessop’s effort, ‘a more astonishing display has never been seen. What he did would have been scarcely possible under the same circumstances to any other living batsman. The rest of the match was simply one crescendo of excitement.’
For Jessop in 1902, read Stokes in 2015. With Cook laying a platform at the other end, England finished a pulsating fourth day on 429-6.
The effect was immediate: next morning the queues for tickets stretched back down the Wellington Road towards St John’s Wood tube station. This last happened in 2011, when India were the visitors. On that occasion London’s South Asian diaspora turned up in their thousands hoping to see Sachin Tendulkar. But this was New Zealand, the Ashes appetite-whetters, in chilly May.
And while it certainly helped that the final day was also a Bank Holiday, and that ticket prices had been reduced to encourage parents to bring their kids, there was little doubt Stokes’ batting the day before had encouraged the public to believe the England Test team was finally worth watching again.
They were not disappointed – and Stokes was not finished. After Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad had reduced New Zealand to 12-3, Stokes removed Kane Williamson and Brendon McCullum in successive balls, celebrating with a pair of outstretched arms and clenched fists that recalled Andrew Flintoff in his pomp.
That evening, as England celebrated a win that had looked thoroughly implausible the previous morning, the game was celebrating a new hero. More importantly, the clouds that had settled over English cricket, depositing bucketloads of opprobrium on an almost weekly basis, seemed to have lifted.
We have been here before, of course. Throughout the 1990s, after the retirement of Ian Botham, a succession of hapless all-rounders were each anointed as the new saviours of our game. Only Flintoff fulfilled the brief, and even then his heroics were largely limited to a couple of years either side of the 2005 Ashes.
Now the arrival of Stokes coincided with a wider sense of renewal. Downton had been replaced by Andrew Strauss, who brought a calm assurance to his role as director of cricket, even if not everyone agreed with his decision to cut Pietersen adrift once more.
Moores had gone, allowing the more relaxed Paul Farbrace to preside in a caretaker capacity over the New Zealand series (Australian Trevor Bayliss, a former colleague of Farbrace during their time together at Sri Lanka, was soon announced as the Moores’ full-time replacement, and almost everyone applauded the decision).
And Stokes was promoted to No 6, a move instigated by Farbrace in the belief that he was at his best when responding to responsibility.
More than anything, Farbrace quietly encouraged his charges to play their natural game – a subtle but telling difference in the approach from Moores, who more or less beseeched them to do so. Moores’ message was fair enough: but his manner proved unwittingly restrictive. Under Farbrace, the players eased into doing what they did best.
The upshot was a Test match high on adrenaline. More runs were scored (1 610) than in any other Lord’s Test. For the first time in 80 years, England twice scored over 350 runs in a day in the same Test. And New Zealand scored more runs (743) than they had ever done in a Test they went on to lose. It was incessantly thrilling.
Headingley maintained the tempo. New Zealand thrashed 350 in 72 overs in their first innings, and 454-8 in 91 in their second. That England stayed in touch was thanks to a helter-skelter 46 from Stuart Broad at No 9. As the teams traded blows, spectators yearned for a series longer than two matches. They could even forgive the home side their defeat.
Even during England’s period of success under Strauss and coach Andy Flower, which culminated in their ascent to the top of the Test rankings with a 4-0 home win over India in 2011, their style of play had failed to engage the public as it might have done.
Back then, it was all about attrition. England had a three-man seam-bowling attack capable of landing it on off-stump over after over, and a spinner in Graeme Swann who could bowl 35 overs on the first day, take wickets and keep it tight.
Their approach to batting was similar: Cook, Strauss and Jonathan Trott soaked up the new-ball pressure, allowing Bell, Pietersen and Matt Prior to cash in against a tired attack. Substance trumped style. England won Tests, rather than hearts.
That’s not to say the win against New Zealand at Lord’s was all about throwing caution to the wind. Without Cook’s nine-hour 162 in the second innings, Root and Stokes would not have been able to play with such freedom.
And the reason Cook was now in the runs once more – in his previous Test, in Barbados, he had scored his first hundred for nearly two years – was because he had resumed his relationship with Graham Gooch, his former mentor who a year earlier had taken a phonecall from Cook to be told he was no longer required as England’s batting coach.
His solidity restored, Cook could go back to doing what his team needed him to: grind out big runs at the top of the order, the kindly uncle handing out pocket money so his nephews could run amok on the town.
Unwittingly, perhaps, New Zealand played their part too. So committed to attack was McCullum that his field settings left wide gaps for batsmen to exploit. Had England been confronted with a more conservative captain, they might have scored more runs, more slowly. Instead, they were ushered on their way.
One game does not make a summer, nor constitute a revival, especially when the next game is then lost. There are plenty of England fans who have not forgiven the England and Wales Cricket Board for their cack-handed treatment of the Pietersen affair, nor for the manner in which Cook was apparently shielded from blame while others paid with their jobs.
But the transformation in mood between the start of the Lord’s Test and its conclusion was remarkable – and there was enough goodwill to sustain the defeat at Headingley.
A few weeks earlier, Stokes’ dismissal in the second Test in Grenada had been greeted by West Indies’ Marlon Samuels with a comedy on-field salute, which Stokes had to endure as he trudged back to the pavilion. For a moment, it looked as if he might actually commit assault.
But when he reached three figures at Lord’s, the gesture resurfaced. This time it came from Root, standing on the team balcony in the pavilion. Members of the crowd caught on. When Stokes found himself on a hat-trick the next day, spectators stood up and saluted. Previously a source of ridicule, the gesture had become a sign of affection. Win, lose or draw, English cricket felt as if its smile was back.
This article featured in the July edition of Sport Monthly. Booth is the editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, an award-winning journalist for the Daily Mail.