New Zealand series a learning curve for Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum but England desperately need a result

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·4-min read
New Zealand series a learning curve for Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum but England desperately need a result
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England have one win in 17 Tests. They have won none of their last five series. They are bottom of the World Test Championship and sixth in the ICC rankings, with their lowest rating this century.

Their response for a series against the World champions? A captain who has done the job just 10 times in senior cricket; a head coach who has never coached a first-class team; an unproven opening pair; a No3 who has never batted in that position; and a No5 who has not played red-ball cricket this season.

Meanwhile, the bowling absentee list is approaching epidemic status, and two of those still standing will be 40 and 36 by the end of next month.

The game’s issues are not just on the field. Cricket is going through a racism reckoning, a civil war over men’s domestic formats, a job-sucking pandemic and a vacuum of leadership.

For the first time in recent memory, Lord’s is not the hottest ticket in town for the opening Test of the summer. That might be down to the team’s recent performances, but is more likely due to pricing at a time when spare pennies are not readily available.

The first Test of Ben Stokes’ England captaincy comes against New Zealand at Lord’s (Action Images via Reuters)
The first Test of Ben Stokes’ England captaincy comes against New Zealand at Lord’s (Action Images via Reuters)

No, Lord’s will not be embarrassingly empty this week, it will still be a fine occasion. But the conversation around the empty seats – currently around 15,000 across the first four days – feeds into another reckoning for cricket about its affordability, whether to watch the professional game (in person or on the sofa) or for youngsters to get involved.

There is plenty to please the doom-mongers. And yet, for all that, it is impossible not to be excited about the prospect of this England team taking the field at Lord’s tomorrow.

The last time they played, in Grenada in March, they reached rock bottom. England had performed encouragingly in that series against West Indies, then dropped their bundle at the crucial moment. Since, the foundations have been laid, appointment by appointment, to enter a new era.

In that period, there has been a lot of talk, and a lot of guesswork about what all this will look like. Over the course of this bank holiday weekend, we find out.

By pairing Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum as England’s highest-profile, most cavalier and certainly most tattooed Test captain-coach combo, new managing director Rob Key sent a message: this would not be dull.

Many had concerns about burdening Stokes, who has had injury and mental health issues. He turns 31 on day three of the Test, but his life has already had enough ups and downs for Amazon Prime to commission a documentary — a brush with the law, the death of a parent, the nadir of Kolkata, the highs of Headingley and Lord’s have moulded a leader of greater thought and eloquence than he gets credit for.

We cannot expect everything to change overnight, but Stuart Broad provided an insight into what to look out for yesterday: “Brendon said to the bowling group, ‘Don’t focus too much on economy rates, I want wickets’. Let’s try and get as many wickets as we can, as soon as possible. So it’s ‘where can I get an extra slip from? Where can I get a short leg from?’ rather than being too defensive.”

For Broad and James Anderson, that means a shift. They have been masters of bowling dry, building pressure, finding an unhittable length. Rather than softly-softly-catchy-monkey, it is straight for the jugular.

This series is a learning exercise, but England also desperately need a result

“In the past it was two an over, pressure will see the batsman make a mistake,” said Broad. “Now it’s how do we apply pressure quicker?

“It’s the balance of protecting economy or risk it by going fuller. Yes, you might get driven, but you’ve got more chance of taking wickets.”

Do not assume the batters will all go about things like Stokes or McCullum, the owner of Test cricket’s fastest century (but also a 556-ball 302). He espouses soaking up pressure, earning the right to put it back on your opponents. Kane Williamson and Tom Latham, once team-mates but opponents tomorrow, do not share an approach with McCullum.

This series, this game, is a learning exercise, as McCullum works out which players are worth his investment. But England also desperately need a result. The first Test of the summer is always a little bit special, but this one feels especially so.

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