England vs South Africa: Memories of 2004 as Ben Stokes’ side look to finish dizzying summer on a high note

·4-min read
Ben Stokes will look to lead England to another series win over South Africa at The Oval  (Getty Images)
Ben Stokes will look to lead England to another series win over South Africa at The Oval (Getty Images)

As autumn unmistakably draws in, England have a shot at capping an electric summer of Test cricket with a sixth win out of seven — a significant statistic that shows they are on the right path.

The last time England won as many as six Tests in a summer, Brendon McCullum was a 22-year-old rookie, keeping wicket and batting No8 for one of their opponents.

That was 18 years ago, in 2004. McCullum’s New Zealand received a 3-0 drubbing, before West Indies were beaten 4-0 to complete a summer whitewash.

That series featured the two finest hours for Rob Key, then a promising 25-year-old, now England’s managing director of cricket, as he made 221 at Lord’s, then finished 93 not out at Old Trafford, where he walked off arm-in-arm with his best mate, Andrew Flintoff. Six months later, Key had played his final Test.

Also in the side for three of the four Tests against West Indies was one James Anderson. That was his second summer of Test cricket and third year as an international.

Now, McCullum and Key are masterminding England’s new era — a gallivanting style of cricket, combined with a refreshingly simple attitude to off-field matters — and, almost unbelievably, Anderson is still going. He is 40, and tomorrow wins his 175th cap.

These days, every time an England player plays 25 matches they are presented with a new one, but, needless to say, Anderson predates that manufactured tradition.

His 175 is long since being a record for an Englishman (Alastair Cook’s 161) and a specialist international fast bowler (he overtook Courtney Walsh’s 132), but Stuart Broad reaches 159 tomorrow.

Nowadays, there is a record or milestone just about every time Anderson or Broad play: Anderson reached 100 wickets against South Africa in the last Test; the one before, Broad racked up 100 at Lord’s.

England have had good summers since 2004, notably in 2011 and 2013, both of which saw them win five matches and go undefeated. In the first, they went top of the rankings, and won the Ashes in the second.

Everyone remembers 2005, but half of their wins that year came against Bangladesh on their first and, as things shamefully stand, penultimate Test series in this country.

This dizzying summer has, this week, the chance to top them. England’s five wins so far have been spectacular, and in the most recent, at Old Trafford a couple of weeks ago, made their one loss, at Lord’s before that, look like a mere blip.

James Anderson and Stuart Broad continue to rack up the Test milestones for England (Getty Images)
James Anderson and Stuart Broad continue to rack up the Test milestones for England (Getty Images)

They can prove that tomorrow, even without the injured Jonny Bairstow, their man of the summer. Harry Brook comes in for his debut in a side showing just one change. South Africa are likely to make more, with Rassie van der Dussen injured and Marco Jansen surely set to be recalled.

Under McCullum and Ben Stokes, many England players look revitalised. It is a far cry from their miserable winless winter. The management’s approach has been simple: talk straight, remind players it is a game, take the attacking option and select faithfully.

Brook will be just the 16h player used by England this summer. Two of those, Matt Parkinson and Sam Billings, only got their chance as substitutes for concussion and Covid. The fast-bowling stocks, so depleted by injury, have deepened with the emergence of Matt Potts and Jamie Overton.

Anderson and Broad are among the reinvigorated. This summer, Anderson is averaging under 18, Broad a more modest 32. But the latter is embracing his seniority and new role with the bat and older ball, and has played all seven Tests.

It is easy to forget that Anderson and Broad were left out of the tour to the Caribbean earlier this year. Missing the flat pitches there might, conversely, have saved their careers, but that was just the latest effort to manage their departures, an exercise that should have been condemned futile long before it actually was by Key and McCullum.

The Oval is the pair’s worst regular home venue; this is Anderson’s 15th Test there, and he averages 33. Broad has played 12, and averages 35. It is also English cricket’s goodbye ground (just ask their great mate, Cook) but, with both men enjoying this set-up and the Ashes next year, farewells do not appear to have crossed their mind.

Like the rest of their smiling side, they are focused on giving this summer the ending it deserves.