Can the fun-loving Ben Stokes-Brendon McCullum era work in a bubble?

Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum of England talk during a training session before Thursday's third Test against South Africa at the Kia Oval - Phillip Brown/Getty Images
Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum of England talk during a training session before Thursday's third Test against South Africa at the Kia Oval - Phillip Brown/Getty Images

Since overhauling England’s Test team six months ago, the brains trust of Rob Key, Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes have been at pains to point out that, in one vital respect, they have been dealt a far better hand than their predecessors: they operate in a post-bubble world.

The biosecure bubbles that allowed cricket to be played during the pandemic’s peaks were triumphs of resourcefulness, keeping the game afloat and providing entertainment to millions of fans. But they were taxing on players, who had little access to their families and opened the curtains in the morning to see a place of work, which was especially haunting on the bad days.

McCullum and Stokes’ ascension came at exactly the same time England ceased to be under any Covid restrictions: no testing, isolation: just normal life, a huge privilege hiding in plain sight that they have used to their advantage.

Until now, that is. When they arrived in Pakistan on Saturday night, England went back into a bubble, for security reasons, on their first Test tour of the country in 17 years. They will be given presidential level security, confined to the hotel except for matches and training, which they will travel to in a heavily-armed convoy.

The players seem at ease with the arrangements, with Stokes acknowledging that there was "a little bit of concern” after the recent shooting of Imran Khan, but another visit to the country from their security expert Reg Dickason has allayed any lingering concerns. It is a landmark tour that “the boys are buzzing for”, according to Ollie Pope, who is being promoted to leadership duties in the absence of Stuart Broad and Jonny Bairstow.

There is an acceptance, though, that it is going to be different. The new regime have prioritised time spent together off-field, whether on the golf course, exploring restaurants or enjoying time at players’ houses, such as the barbecue Jonny Bairstow hosted before the Headingley Test.

“It’ll feel like a bubble again,” says Pope. “What we’ve really enjoyed as a team and what’s helped us be successful is the fact that we can live our life, play golf the day before and switch off from cricket and this is going to be different so we’re going to have to find ways of getting our minds away over the next three weeks out in Pakistan."

Their minds were certainly allowed to get away at this week’s “warm-up” in Abu Dhabi. It started with a lavish weekend at the Grand Prix for the whole squad, while some players went to a gig by the rapper Kendrick Lamar and to a boat party. Training was then cancelled on Monday; three intense days followed, first of training, then a match against the Lions. The final day of that was cancelled because England felt they had got enough out of it, so they had a two-hour training session before a round of golf.

Paul Collingwood, Brendon McCullum, Keaton Jennings, Ben Duckett, Ben Foakes, Will Jacques, Liam Livingstone, Ollie Pope, Joe Root, James Anderson, Ben Stokes, Ollie Robinson, Zak Crawley, Marcus Trescothick, Jamie Overton, Jack Leech, Jeetan Patel pose for a photo on the grid prior to the F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi at Yas Marina Circuit on November 20, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Dan Isitene/Getty Images
Paul Collingwood, Brendon McCullum, Keaton Jennings, Ben Duckett, Ben Foakes, Will Jacques, Liam Livingstone, Ollie Pope, Joe Root, James Anderson, Ben Stokes, Ollie Robinson, Zak Crawley, Marcus Trescothick, Jamie Overton, Jack Leech, Jeetan Patel pose for a photo on the grid prior to the F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi at Yas Marina Circuit on November 20, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Dan Isitene/Getty Images

McCullum promotes the mindset and comfort of his players above all else. His view is that facing 90mph bowling under intense scrutiny is hard enough without any external pressure being added. Training has intense periods, but it is on the players to decide how much technical work they do. Golf is a hobby, sure, but it is also used to reinforce his messaging, such as when, in the summer, McCullum and Stokes sensed that Zak Crawley was struggling. They took Crawley, perhaps the best golfer in the group, out for 18 holes of gentle chat about the summer, which led to him opening up to them about his worries over a beer at the 19th hole. An uptick in form followed.

Golf is something that England will be allowed to do once or twice in Pakistan, and they have a golf simulator among other toys in the team room. Crawley is at the heart of an avid card school, Keaton Jennings has travelled with a coffee machine so will play team barista, while others, including Stokes, are obsessive online gamers. The inability to go to restaurants is offset by a team chef for the first time.

The tour is not desperately long, the games come thick and fast, but there will still be plenty of down time. While there are lessons to be learnt from Jos Buttler’s team’s tour of Pakistan, Test cricket is a far more complicated game than T20, with far more scope for introspection.

Pope was among the players most vocal about how bubbles affected him. His form was badly hurt, too; he averaged 22 in 16 matches while England were under restrictions. In his other 14 – evenly split before and after – he averages 42.

“I was pretty new to international cricket at that point and my mood pretty much was dependent on how many runs I scored that day, rather than being at peace,” he said.

There were low ebbs aplenty during the bubble period, whether it was responding to being spun out in Ahmedabad in March 2021, or arguments over especially invasive Covid testing in Australia at Christmas. But England, and Pope, do seem to have learnt from the experience.

“It’s about not just watching a screen and playing Call of Duty but finding other ways to take your mind away from cricket and just enjoying each other’s company more.

Crawley agrees. “The worst thing is if you play cricket all day and think about it in the evening,” he says. “That’s when it becomes tough.

“I learnt a lot from that India tour. It’s very easy to get down, bored, and negative, and start using that language. I think that language we use is very important. I personally am really looking forward to Pakistan. It’s great, no one has been there for 17 years, and an England team playing in Pakistan, it’s a great honour and I’m very excited for it. There will be challenges off the field, but my mindset is very much about having a good time, treating it for what it is. If you get in that mindset it can drag on and affect your cricket.”

It will be fascinating to see how England’s unique style fairs in alien conditions. That is not the only challenge they face, though.