England’s new era under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum off to positive start despite familiar batting woes

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·4-min read
England’s new era under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum off to positive start despite familiar batting woes
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It was not a perfect performance — far from it — but England were well past the point of that mattering.

They just needed a win, and they found it. The winless run of nine Tests and record of one victory in 17 are over, and England are off the bottom of the World Test Championship table. The Brendon McCullum-Ben Stokes era has wind in its sails.

Still, can we have learned much from a game in which James Anderson and Stuart Broad took half the wickets and Joe Root and Stokes were the only men to raise their bats? Stokes certainly thought so. Clearly, an outstanding debut for Matt Potts gives England another seam-bowling option, and Ben Foakes’s composure with bat and gloves was welcome.

From a victorious vantage point, Stokes was even able to embellish some concerns. England still had two collapses, one of the top order, the other of the whole order. But Alex Lees, his last six innings all between 20 and 31, was “the best he’s looked in an England shirt”. Zak Crawley “got us off to an absolute flyer” through his “positive intent” in the first innings, before falling in frustrating fashion. Ollie Pope and Jonny Bairstow failed to reach 20 with the bat, but provided moments of inspiration in the field.

It is too early to say whether England’s fielding, not far off flawless, simply had a good week or is part of a wider up-tick under McCullum, who puts so much stock in attitude in the field. Certainly, the tone was set by Bairstow’s early catches and Jack Leach’s match-ending pursuit of the ball — McCullum could be seen peering over the balcony in delight at the effort, if not the outcome — and England threw down stumps more often than in any Test in recent memory, with Pope’s direct hit the reward.

England vs New Zealand

By the numbers

9 - years and 171 days in which Root reached 10,000 Test runs, becoming the first batsman to do it in under a decade

9 - centuries since the start of 2021 for Root

7 - years since England last won a Test against New Zealand

Stokes’s leadership was impressive, too. We knew he could do “follow me”, but he spoke impressively and handled his two debutants with care. Potts was not left to stew; Stokes brought him on for the 10th over of the match, replacing Broad immediately after he had taken a wicket.

He picked up Kane Williamson’s wicket and never looked back. On the third evening, Stokes invited Potts, another Durham player, out for dinner with his family to celebrate his birthday, in order to allay any nerves over batting yesterday. Root and Foakes ensured Potts was not required; he could have joined Stokes in having the “couple of beers” that helped him sleep.

Matt Parkinson’s was a more unusual debut, but it was wise of Stokes to whip him into the attack as New Zealand collapsed on day three. He promptly picked up the wicket of Tim Southee in what was a tidy performance overall. It is awful luck for Leach, an awfully unlucky cricketer, but England may reflect in time that Parkinson playing early this summer is a positive.

Joe Root guided England to victory over New Zealand in his first game since resigning the captaincy (AP)
Joe Root guided England to victory over New Zealand in his first game since resigning the captaincy (AP)

Through the ups and downs of a wild Test, McCullum, eyes often hidden by sunglasses, cut an inscrutable figure on the home balcony. His players appeared desperate to sit next to him. Unlike his predecessors Chris Silverwood and Trevor Bayliss, he then opted not to speak to the media at the conclusion, allowing Stokes and Root to revel in the moment. Formal post-match debriefs were short, with families soon in the changing room to mingle.

The sense is McCullum is using this series, which continues on Friday in Nottingham, to assess his options before making changes — and that includes staff. Among the coaches, only spin specialist Jeetan Patel, a former New Zealand team-mate, and James Foster, from Kolkata Knight Riders, have worked with McCullum before.

England just needed a win, and they found it

McCullum wants to simplify the dressing-room environment. England have a big backroom staff, all with important roles to play in the week of a Test match. Covid-19 and bubble life is one reason that, for a couple of years (and maybe longer before), many of them have been in the dressing room in the hours of play. Expect that to change and perhaps for the staff to be trimmed. It has not gone unnoticed that New Zealand have 11 staff on tour, half a dozen fewer than England had at Lord’s.

The new leaders’ methods are clear. Publicly, Stokes will back his players to the hilt, while McCullum will pump their tyres and do everything he can to make them feel comfortable. They have much to work on, but victory buys everyone just a little more time.

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