England take first step into their brave new world

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Ben Stokes, left, and Brendon McCullum begin their tenures against New Zealand on Thursday  (PA Wire)
Ben Stokes, left, and Brendon McCullum begin their tenures against New Zealand on Thursday (PA Wire)

It turns out that the great "red-ball reset" of 2022 might not be a reset at all.

"There's been a lot of talk about a ‘reset’, which is a word I don't like,” says new captain Ben Stokes on the eve of the Test match summer. “I just see it as a completely blank canvas. I just want everyone to feel free under my captaincy.”

That new canvas will first be painted on this week as England begin a three-match series against New Zealand with the first Test of the summer at Lord’s on Thursday.

Stokes’ job is an unenviable one, inheriting as he does a team with just one win in 17 Tests, bottom of the World Test Championship table and with the sting from the humiliating 4-0 Ashes defeat in Australia over the winter still just as fresh all these months on.

It is no surprise that England have turned to their talisman to save them in their latest hour of need. When Joe Root's tenure came to an end earlier this year it was always going to be the hero of Lord’s and Headingley that England would go to to lift them from their lowest low in years.

It isn't a job he always appeared destined for like so many others – see Bristol 2017 – but is one he nonetheless has always wanted and, more pertinently as it finally begins in earnest, is determined to succeed at.

He has done it before of course, in the first Test against West Indies in 2020 when Root missed the match for the birth of his second child, while he also led the ODI side to victory over Pakistan last summer after a Covid outbreak forced England into picking an entirely new team.

Those who know him best expect him to approach his new role as he does his cricket, with everything he has. “Not much will change from Ben Stokes the player,” Jonny Bairstow, who will bat at five in Stokes’ first selection, says. “The way he goes about his bowling and his batting, it’s all whole-hearted stuff and his captaincy will be the same.

“It’s going to be a learning experience for him as well. We need to understand and recognise that it’s going to be a learning curve, but the experience that he’s got around him, and the visions that he’s got are great. If we can all pull together in the right direction, then it is going to be an exciting brand of cricket.”

England's second most important appointment of this new era will certainly help with that.

James Anderson, left, and Stuart Broad are back (Getty Images)
James Anderson, left, and Stuart Broad are back (Getty Images)

In new head coach Brendon McCullum, the man who set New Zealand on their path to their unprecedented recent success in all three formats, they could scarcely have made a more bold and exciting choice. The former Blackcaps skipper has never coached at first-class or Test level but in 101 Test caps and more than 300 white-ball appearances epitomised the kind of aggressive cricket that this new England now want to play. Indeed, his New Zealand side are credited by many – including good friend Eoin Morgan – as the catalyst for the 2019 World Cup winners’ white-ball resurgence.

Fresh from his Indian Premier League commitments with the Kolkata Knight Riders, McCullum has only had three days with his new charges ahead of this first game in charge. And while there will surely be a number of technical tweaks to come, he has already talked at length about changing the mentality of a group who have lost 11 of their last 20 Tests.

“I see guys who are maybe just a little bit struck by the fear of failure rather than the possibility of success,” he said. “I look at it with a different kind of lens. My first job is to try to bring a real fresh kind of approach and a relaxed style that simplifies things somewhat.

“It’s not going to be easy, I understand that, and there'll be some guys that get there quicker than others. But one thing I can guarantee is that when you do get to that state where you’re playing the game for the game’s sake, because you enjoy it and you're invested in it and you immerse yourself in that moment, cricket’s a great game to play. It’s not a great game when you’re worried about all the other stuff which goes on. That’ll be the message which I keep ramming home to the boys.”

In the top order Ollie Pope will bat at three for the first time with Root at four and Stokes captaining from six. Bairstow keeps his place at five as the only twin centurion of the side’s winless winter meaning in-form Yorkshire teammate Harry Brook must continue to wait for his first look.

At 40, McCullum is just 10 months older than James Anderson, who returns for this opening contest alongside pace-bowling partner in crime Stuart Broad, both having been left out of the tour to the Caribbean. With as many as eight other seamers on the shelf with injury including Jofra Archer, Mark Wood and Chris Woakes, Stokes has opted to hand Durham teammate Matthew Potts a first run-out as first change. The 23-year-old has been preferred over Somerset's Craig Overton after 35 wickets in six county matches this season, including four five-fors.

“He’s been outstanding in the games I’ve played. It’s not been all plain sailing for bowlers and he'’s created things out of nowhere,” Stokes says. “The thing that made my mind up about Pottsy was when he bowled us to victory against Glamorgan. He turned up with a bit of a stiff side, with Test selection coming he could have just sat back and said ‘I’m going to look after myself’ but he didn’t. He ran in and won the game for us.

“That's the attitude that opens your eyes. This kid is an athlete and everything I expect this team to be about going forward.”

A fresh attitude as a new era begins then. Just don’t call it a reset.

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