Ben Stokes may have trouble getting his ideas across when using the written word but there is no question his message has been heard at all levels of the English game after only four Tests as permanent captain.
“It’s the last time I will ever write on a whiteboard because I needed to ask how to spell ‘environment’,” he said at Lord’s on Wednesday when describing his first team talk earlier this week after five weeks apart.
England did not appoint Stokes for his academic brilliance but do not underestimate the sharpness of his brain and streetwise intelligence.
He has stamped his mark on this team quicker than any captain in recent memory and exudes an authority in a few weeks that some of his predecessors failed to manage after years in the job.
Just look at how the England Lions eviscerated South Africa last week for 672 at 5.74 an over, and how county batsmen have tried to up their scoring rates to get noticed.
“Durham played Middlesex when I was training at Durham and I had a good chat with Mark Ramprakash for about 15 to 20 minutes and he was asking me what he needs to tell his players about what we want to see from players to get noticed.
“It’s great to see. I think it’s just as important for myself, Baz [McCullum] and Keysey [Rob Key] to really get that message filtered down. What I thought was great from Baz and Rob was that they went down to Canterbury (for the Lions game) for the whole week along with Colly [Paul Collingwood] to deliver that message. Obviously it worked.”
South Africa scoffed at 'Bazball' recently, with Dean Elgar, their captain, warning it will not last. He may be proved right but he was talking before the Lions game and his team have had to rethink how to take on England. It is a long time since they forced opponents to go back to the drawing board.
The one element missing so far has been a hundred from Stokes. His strike rate of 80.81 this summer, a big uptick from his career record of 58, was the definition of leading from the front. He set the tone and others followed and so his self-inflicted dismissals were more easily forgiven than is usual for an England captain.
'We’ve won four out of four – I'm happy with that'
But only in his first innings as captain - at Lord’s against New Zealand when he nicked off early - has Stokes actually been dismissed by the opposing team. The rest of his wickets against New Zealand and India could have been costly particularly in first innings at Headingley and Edgbaston (55 for five and 149 for six).
Stokes snorted when asked if his team might have to play smarter cricket. “Ah, God. We’ve won four games out of four. I’m happy with that.”
But New Zealand were on top in all three Tests and the ball is likely to swing more this week, given the sudden - and yet wholly predictable - outburst of wetter weather. Rob Key bridled at ‘Bazball’ talk recently. “It devalues a little bit what I think those guys have done and those two in particular, because it's not about going out there and just looking to play shots,” he said.
Brendon McCullum himself called it a “silly term” and that there is “quite a bit of thought that goes into how the guys manufacture their performances” but the batting of Stokes at times tipped over from aggressive to reckless. He can be so much more than that and is a batsman of great depth and talent.
South Africa are top of the World Test Championship (England are still seventh) and have genuine pace in Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje and the left-armer Marco Jansen. In Elgar they have a captain who shares some personality traits with Stokes: he is tough and uncompromising, like his predecessor Graeme Smith, who had a knack of ruining England captains with mind games.
Just one change for England, Ben Foakes back after missing the India Test with Covid, gives the team a familiar feel with Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Matt Potts and Jack Leach forming the attack. Stokes's knee is better but it is unlikely he will bowl long spells so lots of work ensues for Leach, who has bowled only 68 overs since the India Test. That is a worry given he needs to be in rhythm more than most to be effective at Test level.
Zak Crawley has played nine innings since the India Test without success and remains under pressure despite the unequivocal backing of Stokes. England believe Harry Brook could open and his 140 off 170 balls for the Lions last week was further proof of his readiness for elevation.
Alex Lees’s embrace of the new ways has won him a longer run while Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root are the beating heart of the team’s batting, but it is from Stokes that everything flows and he barely needed to outline what that means.
“There’s a real excitement for me, getting back, seeing everybody, chatting through and reminding everybody about what we’ve done and what we’ve achieved," he said. "It's about sticking to our guns and making sure that five-week period hasn’t lost its 'venom', as I say.”
First Test teams
England: Lees, Crawley, Pope, Root, Bairstow, Stokes, Foakes, Potts, Leach, Broad, Anderson.
South Africa: Elgar, Erwee, Petersen, Markram, van der Dussen, Verreynne, Maharaj, Jansen, Rabada, Ngidi, Nortje.