England relish Brendon McCullum impact with simplicity key to superb response

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·4-min read
England relish Brendon McCullum impact with simplicity key to superb response
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In the giddy aftermath of last week’s extraordinary victory at Trent Bridge, Ben Stokes promised that England’s spirit of attacking adventure would only advance as the weeks wore on.

Where better to prove that than the site of Stokes’s finest hour and, indeed, one of the finest displays of attacking strokeplay ever seen in Test cricket?

This is the first time Stokes has been back in an England shirt at Headingley since that heady day of Ashes cricket in August 2019. Life has thrown plenty at him in that time, from the serious illness and passing of his father, Ged, the pandemic, nasty injury, a mental health break, an awkward Ashes tour and, now, the England captaincy.

He has played one game here since, for Northern Superchargers in the Hundred, but scored just five runs from seven balls and took a single wicket. That was shortly before he began his four-month break from the game, and his mind was scrambled.

Despite a brief illness scare yesterday, Stokes is in a much better place now. Even since Australia, he looks physically fitter and happier. As captain, he has spoken more like a statesman than those sceptical of his appointment expected.

Speaking on the Telegraph’s cricket podcast today, batting coach Marcus Trescothick, who is missing this game with Covid, admitted that England’s transformation under Stokes and Brendon McCullum was taking place at a faster pace than even those inside the camp imagined.

McCullum has a Midas touch, and is clearly communicating with the players in a language that chimes. This is the ‘vibes era’, where players are made to “feel 10 feet tall” and encouraged to “run towards the danger”.

There has been a playful approach to training, where McCullum throws few balls and leaves technical work to his assistants. He is all about mindset, and keeping the game fun. There has been a focus on bonding as a group. Last night, the team relaxed with a barbecue at Jonny Bairstow’s house, near Leeds.

While it has taken no time for McCullum to make his mark, these are early days. Trescothick said that England’s assistant coaches recognise that McCullum is taking their temperature before deciding who to bring in. There is still a national selector to be appointed, but that will probably come at the end of the summer.

After the muddle of the pandemic era, there is an enjoyable simplicity to the approach. An official vice-captain will be appointed when they need one. They will pick the best team for each game, rather than worrying about the next one. That is the case even when they have another Test, against India, three days after this one, and the series is won.

Brendon McCullum has made a swift impact in his role as England’s new Test coach (Getty Images)
Brendon McCullum has made a swift impact in his role as England’s new Test coach (Getty Images)

Like the coaches, the players are on notice — and most have responded brilliantly. How England would love a score for Zak Crawley, who Trescothick says is the batter most in need of a positive approach to the game, and for Jack Leach to take some wickets. Leach was Stokes’s partner in crime at Headingley and turned 31 today; he will have a role to play on a flat-looking pitch here.

The rest have responded superbly to the changes. Alex Lees still needs a century, but looks a player transformed from the Caribbean, as does Ben Foakes. Ollie Pope has made a good start at No3, and will like the look of the pitch.

One debutant, Matt Potts, has come in and settled immediately. Can Jamie Overton do the same when his chance comes? New Zealand have had a rough couple of weeks, with injuries to bowlers in both games (Colin de Grandhomme at Lord’s and Kyle Jamieson at Trent Bridge) and plenty of Covid in the camp. All those who tested positive, including Kane Williamson, are set to be back here.

The tourists will also reflect that they have made some bad mistakes, and their management of both England’s successful chases has been wrong-headed.

After the muddle of the pandemic era, there is an enjoyable simplicity to McCullum’s approach

They are in a selection bind, with Tim Southee looking a shadow of himself at Trent Bridge and Ajaz Patel seemingly hit out of the series at Lord’s. On a pitch as pale as they come at Headingley, the spinner might well prove handy. Either way, expect Neil Wagner to be back.

So, there is a sense that New Zealand are a good team suddenly looking a little vulnerable. While England have made an excellent start, to win a series 3-0 against a team they had not won a single Test against across their last three series would be some statement.

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