England ahead of schedule as rapid rebuild prepares for toughest test yet in Pakistan

·4-min read
New era: Rob Key and Brendon McCullum have overseen an impressive rebuild of England’s Test side  (Getty Images)
New era: Rob Key and Brendon McCullum have overseen an impressive rebuild of England’s Test side (Getty Images)

Rob Key took over as England’s managing director of men’s cricket on Easter Sunday. By then, he knew that Ben Stokes would be his captain and that he wanted Brendon McCullum as his Test coach.

Those were exciting, ambitious appointments that suggested a project. But Key said yesterday that so low were England at that point — with one win in 17 matches — that he considered “anything that happened this year was a bonus. We just wanted to try to win a couple of games and see what happens from there”.

This summer, then, England’s best statistically — with six wins out of seven — since 2004, has been a resounding success. There is a long way to go and they have had their share of luck, perhaps most of all against New Zealand, but, at one time or another, they have truly fazed their opponents into making simple errors. They have only batted first once (against South Africa at Lord’s), and it was the one game they lost, although it was a massive toss to lose. They are still seventh in the World Test Championship table.

But Stokes, particularly, has exceeded all expectations as a speaker and a statesman, with positivity coursing through his every action. The secret, really, has been simplicity. Straightforward selection: the only player dropped all summer, Matt Potts, was to accommodate the fit-again Ollie Robinson, and even that could have happened a game earlier than it did.

Strong communication, in public and behind closed doors, with plenty of positive reinforcement. Fewer voices, and support staff, in the dressing room. Shorter training sessions, with players doing what they feel they need to do. England have crossed bridges when they have reached them, with an example being the lack of a vice-captain. They will announce a replacement for Stokes when he misses a Test (it is understood that Stuart Broad would have captained had Stokes not come through a slight concern at Headingley), and perhaps announce a vice-captain when a player appears ready. Early days, but Ollie Pope showed positive signs this summer.

The dressing-room buy-in has been complete — and, of course, winning helps. But while the Lions game at Canterbury was a huge success and England’s approach has been rubbing off on players in county cricket, they feel there is a little work to do yet in getting the wider English cricketing public to understand what they are up to.

There was frustration in the England camp when Jack Leach got a rebuke from coaches at Somerset for playing a switch hit — that went for six! — in a Championship match in July, and delight when, unperturbed, the tailender subsequently played it in the Old Trafford Test.

Stokes has bristled at occasional questions from the media, including yesterday, when he was asked about his approach to batting this summer, which has been as aggressive as any of his player. “You can keep on criticising if we are winning six out of seven Tests,” he said. Shortly after, he used his press conference to take a subtle shot at the media for being outcome-obsessed.

A theme of the summer has been how England will handle whatever comes next. As they beat New Zealand, they were warned it would come unstuck against India. They won again. They did, briefly, struggle against South Africa, but were soon back on track. Now, we wonder if they can take their buccaneering style overseas.

It was refreshing to hear Stokes acknowledge, when asked about the Ashes, that England had plenty to think about before next summer’s series. Yes, that is a flagship event to look forward to, but there are six Tests against three opponents to get through first. The previous regime was too Ashes-obsessed.

That next challenge comes in Pakistan, in December. This week, the T20 squad depart for a seven-match tour to the country, England’s first visit since 2005, but it is the Test leg that will be remembered longer for cricketing reasons. Victory there would be a huge triumph for England, who have won just two matches in Pakistan ever.

Clearly, things will need tweaking, especially in the make-up of the attack. A second spinner, likely a retirement reversal from Moeen Ali, is essential. So is greater pace and reverse swing, with Mark Wood, Olly Stone, Saqib Mahmood and Jamie Overton, all returning from injury, the options.

“When we go to Pakistan, we can’t live off the fact that we’ve won six out of seven games, because we will be presented with a completely different challenge,” said Stokes.

The fundamental attitude, though, remains the same.

“Walk towards that danger that Pakistan is going to throw at us,” he added. “It’s a hot country, you are not going to get anywhere near as much assistance with the ball as you do in England. You will be facing a lot more spin. That’s a new challenge for us and something we are excited by. To show off that in different situations, we can show off the positive mindset and always try to put the pressure back onto the opposition.”

The first chapter of a new era has ended, and England are way ahead of Key’s schedule. They have earned the right to try their thrilling style elsewhere.