Inside the wild 19-day revolution that dragged England back from cricket oblivion

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Inside the wild 19-day revolution that dragged England back from cricket oblivion

As a player and a leader, Brendon McCullum was never backwards in coming forward.

Adam Gilchrist might have changed the role of a wicket-keeper batter, but McCullum changed the perception of leadership. That is, you could be aggressive but play the game respectfully and within the “spirit of the game”.

Now, in his first foray into Test cricket as a coach, McCullum has changed English cricket – and perhaps the five-day version of the game, too.

After four successful run chases, including Monday’s seven-wicket demolition of India, England are breaking the rules of cricket’s conservative game by the way are motoring down totals.

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Their methods, spearheaded by Jonny Bairstow’s astonishing summer where he has four centuries in his past five knocks, have flipped the script overnight.

It was only in January that England were blasted from pillar to post, as Chris Silverwood’s men were smashed four-nil Down Under. His side were hardly the first to lose in Australia, but their inability to challenge Pat Cummins’ side and post a total of any substance led to a full scale “root and branch” review of the entire England cricket system.

Ultimately, the coach and his assistants were sacked, the director of cricket Ashley Giles was given his marching orders and, following yet another embarrassing result in the West Indies, Joe Root resigned under a barrage of criticism.

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In the wake of the humiliation, England are rising from the Ashes. Or, at least, that is the perception four Tests into McCullum’s reign.

The Telegraph’s chief cricket writer Nick Hoult said Australia will have noticed the changing in the winds off the Indian Ocean as they prepare for the second Test against Sri Lanka on Friday.

“As they prepare for the second Test of their series against Sri Lanka halfway across the world, Australia will have taken notice – and perhaps with some alarm,” he wrote.

Former England captain Michael Atherton, too, wrote the “transformation” was well and truly underway.

“Right now, opponents such as Australia will have taken note of what is happening and may be wondering how to accommodate this shift when they arrive for the Ashes next summer,” Atherton wrote in The Times, having watched their Ashes embarrassment closely as one of the press touring party last Australian summer. 

“That anyone may even be thinking about the approach of England’s Test team right now is a triumph of leadership in itself. They are a team transformed.”

The question is though, is England indeed the real deal or is the fine prose covering over the cracks that still appear to be lingering under the surface?

BAZBALL

One thing is for sure, England’s mentality is different to the soft, tepid approach under Root and Silverwood.

Neither were hard leaders.

Silverwood placed his trust in those around him and Root led by numbers, not authority.

His charming youthful looks and baby face, even with the attempt of a stubble, did little to put fears in his opponents.

Ben Stokes and head coach Brendon McCullum have England back in the frame for the Ashes. Photo:Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

In their place has stepped Ben Stokes, a follow me kind of leader who delivers when all else seems lost.

The New Zealand-born Stokes appears to have met his match with McCullum, who encourages his players to play without fear and, importantly, they do because they believe it – after all, it was the same he went about his cricket.

Case in point is the difference in mentality between England in the space of 13 months.

Against New Zealand at Lord’s last year, England chose not to try and chase down 273 and, instead, crawled to 3-170 at 2.42 runs per over, before no result was deemed a possibility. England, playing at the home of cricket, were smashed for the dour, defensive mindset.

On Monday, Bairstow and Root motored down the target of 378, scoring at 4.93 runs per over.

Naturally, they won praise for their development.

“Brendon does not have any negative thoughts. He just makes it simple, clears people’s minds. He does not clutter them up with plans or technical ideas. He just tells them to be positive, express themselves and don’t be intimidated by anybody,” former England opener Geoffrey Boycott said.

“Once you unclutter a player’s mind and give a clarity of purpose and a positive attitude they are going to play their best. Every team will always follow the lead of the character of the captain and coach. Stokes and McCullum are similar: aggressive and belligerent. It is a breath of fresh air and we should just enjoy it.

“Brendon and Ben are not going to change their way of playing Test match cricket, so it’s going to be a fun ride watching this England team.” 

Stokes, meanwhile, is wanting his team to express themselves and be “entertainers”.

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Fresh from his batting heroics, Root lifted the lid on what was being said in the inner sanctum.

“Ben wanted us to be entertainers. He’s mentioned trying to be rock stars on the field,” Root said.

“It’s about trying to have fun and really relishing every opportunity you get to showcase what you’re about and put on a show for everyone. It’s like being a kid again, it’s great.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to feel or look like a rock star but for 10 seconds out there I might have done. That’s what the little pinkie celebration was about. Ben watched the Elvis film the other day and he’s been doing that all week. It was a little tribute to him.”

IS IT SUSTAINABLE?

Stokes’ 36-ball stay at the crease was an interesting case study when casting a judgment over England’s sudden turnaround.

The new England captain, whose match-winning century at Headingley in 2019 will forever be remembered, was dropped twice and caught during his brief innings in the first innings of the fifth Test.

Kevin Pietersen, of all people, encouraged Stokes not to “devalue his wicket” moving forward.

“Test match hundreds are valuable commodities, they mean a hell of a lot because of the stress, tension, patience and discipline that goes into them. That devaluing of his wicket is something I think may not be a good thing,” he said in commentary for Sky Sports.

“I would tell Ben that he doesn’t need to try and prove a point by being ultra-aggressive. The bowler needs to be bowling his best deliveries in order to get Stokes out. At the moment, I see Stokes trying to command authority by running at bowlers.

“He doesn’t need to lose his head and slog the ball up into the air when England are in strife. Stokes can stand still and do what Bairstow is doing. I wouldn’t tell him at all not to go after the bowlers but please stand still. He is too good a player to be doing what he is doing.”

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Mark Butcher, who scored a fine century against Australia during the 2001 Ashes, said Stokes needed to keep in mind Bairstow’s form – where the middle-order batter was enjoying “batting nirvana” because his decision-making was “laser sharp” – and find the right balance in going after the bowling.

“I played under Adam Hollioake [at Surrey] and he would never ask anyone in his team to do something he was unwilling to do himself,” Butcher said.

“Stokes is trying to lay down a marker and say ‘if I can go out there and give my wicket away, be selfless in pursuit of a team goal, then you can, too’.

“My misgiving with that is that, as we saw in that incredible Test innings against Australia at Headingley [in 2019] when he was on about two off 60 balls, Stokes can hold off pressure.

“England are going to have to find the line between being hyper-aggressive and taking the game forward, and then sometimes taking a tiny step back, being smart and then piling in again later on.”

TOP ORDER STRUGGLES

England’s openers saved the best until last, but the jury is still very much open for debate.

New man Alex Lees hit one half-century and averaged 28.36 against New Zealand, while Zak Crawley – for all his shot making and potential – continues to frustrate and averaged just 14.50.

Ollie Pope had a stronger campaign by averaged 44.5o and hit a century.

Alex Lees and Zak Crawley failed to set the world alight despite their strong start in the second innings against India. Photo: Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

All three men missed out in the first-innings against India, while the openers (Lees 56, Crawley 46) put on 107 to give the home side the momentum before Root and Bairstow finished the job.

“At Edgbaston England’s highest run-chase was built upon their fastest ever century opening partnership by Alex Lees, in only his seventh Test, and Zak Crawley,” Scyld Berry wrote in The Telegraph. 

“Lees used his feet from the start against pace and spin. If India had a match-winner after the new ball, it was going to be India’s left-armer Ravi Jadeja, but he was nullified a) by himself, bowling almost entirely over the wicket and b) by England’s enterprise from the moment Lees clubbed his first ball for four and made India spread their field.”

Yet, for all the excitement from England’s winning start under McCullum and Stokes, the top three still remains a major concern.

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Bairstow and Root’s incredible form has completely papered over the cracks of the top three, where the duo came to the crease after England lost 3-2.

The top order collapses still remain a thing.

COME IN SPINNER

One other change would seem England’s change of approach with spinner Jack Leach.

The left-arm spinner was an afterthought in Australia.

Having been looked over for last year’s home summer, Leach was thrown in the deep end by playing at the Gabba for the first Test.

After being taken to the cleaners, he was dropped for the second Test despite conditions calling for a spinner.

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Under the new guard, Leach has been used and used regularly.

It hasn’t always worked, but that’s spin bowling.

In the third Test against New Zealand, he took 10 wickets in the innings and his success came after their opponents took the defensive option by leaving out first-choice spinner Ajaz Patel.

Nor did Stokes turn away from him after being belted in the first-innings against India.

Instead, he bowled well and took the prized-wicket of Rishabh Pant.

For England to beat Australia, just as they did with Giles in 2005 and then Monty Panesar and Graham Swann, they need variation and to trust their spinners.

ARE THE AUSSIES BEING TAKEN FOR GRANTED?

When Michael Vaughan took over from Nasser Hussain, he took the team in a new direction.

Together with Duncan Fletcher, the duo were formidable. They were fresh in their thinking and their approach. There are similarities with Stokes and McCullum.

They took on Australia and Ricky Ponting’s formidable team, with the exception of the late, great Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, struggled.

Which brings us to Australia. Under Pat Cummins, Australia are going from strength to strength and growing as a team too. The Ashes of 2021-22 was just the beginning for Pat Cummins’ team, with most, perhaps excluding Steve Smith and David Warner, building their reputations.

When the fast bowler took over, there were questions from the top of the order through to the middle, the all-rounder was exciting but raw, a new wicket-keeper had replaced Tim Paine and Cummins was the first Australian captain in more than half-a-century.

Then-coach Justin Langer was garnering headlines throughout the series with his future unclear, too.

Those questions, one year out from the Ashes at least, are no longer up for discussion.

Pat Cummins’ men are unbeaten in Test cricket in more than a year. Photo: Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

Usman Khawaja has found himself at the top of the order, Travis Head has come through and took a part England, Cameron Green and Alex Carey are growing with every Test and Cummins has flourished.

If anything, Australia is getting stronger by the day.

By winning in Pakistan and demolishing Sri Lanka in the first Test, they too have sounded warning shots to the world.

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