The cricketing gods might be teaching England a lesson.
After winning the first two Tests by outplaying India in all departments, England brought Ben Stokes back into the side immediately after a Bristol jury decreed him not guilty of charges of affray. Some thought the selectors were too hasty.
When in doubt, look back in time.
In the last Ashes series before the Second World War, Australia took a 1-0 lead into the final match of the series at The Oval.
When rival captains Don Bradman and Wally Hammond went out to toss, Hammond was dressed in his cricketing whites and team blazer, while Bradman strode out in a pinstriped suit, shiny shoes and with a fedora on his head. Bradman looked every bit the celebrity of the day which, of course, he was, but it was not usual cricketing attire for the traditional toss of coin.
Hammond later wrote that Bradman’s attitude showed a distinct lack of respect for cricket, adding that he believed it even affected the outcome of the match. England batted first and declared on 903-7, with Len Hutton racking up the then highest Test score (364) to set up an innings and 579 runs victory. Australia’s problems mounted as batsmen Bradman and Jack Fingleton both suffered injuries which prevented either from batting in the match.
The series was drawn 1-1.
Hammond used the anecdote as a cautionary tale to warn cricketers against being over-confident or taking anything for granted. Form, selection, the weather. After all, Mother Cricket can be a cruel taskmaster.
There are definite parallels between that incident and England’s selection decisions for Trent Bridge. Sam Curran was the Man of the Match in the first Test win at Edgbaston, and he also contributed to the second Test win at Lord’s, when Stokes was absent answering charges of affray in a Bristol court.
Having been acquitted last week, Stokes was brought straight back into the squad, with Curran being cleared out of the way to make way for him. Hammond would have been tipping his ash and raising an eyebrow when news of that selection broke through the pearly gates.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned from this whole episode, one of which is that it’s possible to go from being man of the match to benchwarmer of the week in the space of a few days. Equally, you can go from zero to hero in no time at all ― just think about how often substitutes come off the bench to score a winning goal.
There is also the tricky issue of choosing to go with experience ahead of form. At Trent Bridge, the England selectors went with experience, but what they didn’t factor in was that their experienced player had been sitting in a courtroom dressed in a suit and tie for days, while Curran had been dirtying his whites on the field of battle against India at Lord’s. Stokes is a match-winner and a truly terrific player, so in many ways, it made sense to bring him back in… but perhaps the selectors should have honoured Curran’s contributions and left Stokes on the sidelines.
1) Honour the man in form
It sets a precedent if you don’t reward form and just go with experience… especially if you then chop and change between the two approaches. Being inconsistent with such decisions can leave the axed man feeling disillusioned, while the players in the starting XI might also be left with an uneasy feeling.
2) Earn back your place
After an absence for any reason, make the big name player (or any player) earn their place back in the side, as that keeps all players in the side humble and honest about their game. While it keeps them hungry and desperate to perform and prove their value to the side.
3) Give him a rest
Having been involved in behaviour unbecoming of a top athlete, many felt Stokes should have even been suspended by England on moral grounds for bringing the game into disrepute, even though the jury found him not guilty of affray. That moves into dangerous territory, especially if labour lawyers get trotted out to arm wrestle on a player’s behalf. An alternative would have been to ‘rest’ him and allow him time to process mentally and emotionally what he had been through during the court case. Give him time to shake off the cobwebs. It must have been a really tough week for Stokes and his wife.
4) I’m invincible
Regardless of your guilt or innocence, escaping punishment (or narrowly avoiding a life-threatening experience) can leave us with a feeling of invincibility… but that can quickly lead to overconfidence or even complacency.
Think back to Bradman dressed in his suit for the toss with Hammond… and then look at the picture at the top of the page, with Stokes the only player wearing his cap backwards. It’s just an innocent snapshot but, viewed in isolation, it could be interpreted as Stokes being filled with a feeling of invincibility and even bravado. Such an attitude can play in your favour on the sportsfield, but if it gets misdirected then the negative force can spill over into the rest of the team.
With England 2-0 up and on the verge of clinching the series, the potential for complacency was high… and what happened in the Test? India batted well as a team for the first time in the series (coincidence?), giving Kohli the support he needed as they scored 329. England answered with a weak-willed 161 (coincidence?) to narrowly avoid the follow-on. India then improved their first innings effort by scoring 352-7 in their second innings (coincidence?).
During India’s second innings Johnny Bairstow fractured a finger catching a ball after Cheteshwar Pujara had shouldered arms, while Stokes himself looked to be struggling with a sore leg late on day three. Shades of Australia’s double injury disaster against England in 1938?
ON THIS DAY: In 1938, England captain Wally Hammond declared on a giant 903/7 against Australia at The Oval – a score that got his side the biggest win in Test history, by an innings and 579 runs! Image: ICC
Facing a winning target of 521, and with two days left to avoid defeat, the England batsmen started lamely, with the top four all caught behind pushing or swishing at balls they didn’t need to play to leave them at 62-4. Having brought Stokes in at the expense of Curran, Mother Cricket seemed to be teaching the selectors a lesson.
Stokes had failed to get a wicket when India batted and then scored only 10 in England’s first innings. In India’s second innings his fortunes improved markedly, as he picked up two top-order wickets and then scored an uncharacteristically even-tempered 62 off 187 balls, sharing an impressive stand of 169 for the fifth wickets with Jos Buttler, who scored his maiden Test ton. Despite their best efforts, England ended an incredible day on 311-9… with the series set to go 2-1 early on the fifth day.
This is the dilemma for selectors and offers a lesson from which all selectors can learn. Stokes ended up playing a strong part in England’s performance in this Test (therefore justifying his selection?), but it would take deep level analysis to figure out what impact his inclusion had on the squad ― on many, many levels. They were 2-0 up after Lord’s and chose to disrupt a winning side, you could say by being greedy to get one of their big stars back onto the park.
There is no answer to this question and no moral set in stone… there is just an opportunity to think deep.
Meanwhile, the deposed Curran rolled up his sleeves for Surrey and scored 40 and 31 against Lancashire in the County Championship ― not Ashes 1981 stuff a la Ian Botham, but good, gutsy cricket, when other players might well have slumped and sulked after being dropped. There too is a valuable lesson.
Mother Cricket can’t control everything we do on the field of play ― and sometimes she lets us get away with murder ― but she certainly knows how to offer us timely reminders about the importance of respecting cricket.
What we take from her lessons is up to us.
Photo: Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images