England in Pakistan: Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum restore joy to Test cricket

Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes
England have won nine out of 10 Tests since Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes took charge

It stands to reason that you are more likely to be good at something if you enjoy doing it.

Going to work, doing the garden, learning the whamola. You get the idea.

For a long time, the only thing less enjoyable than playing for the England Test team was watching them.

Not so much shutting the curtains if they were playing in the backyard, but asking the police to escort them away and taking out a restraining order so they could never again set foot in the same county.

The transformation under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum is absolute not only in terms of results – nine wins in 10 Tests capped with a historic 3-0 victory in Pakistan – but the restoration of joy to every aspect of England’s Test cricket.

New Zealander McCullum is a man who always looks like he is having a good time, but Stokes knows what it is to struggle – it was only 14 months ago that he ended a hiatus from the game.

“Very early on in the summer, I tried to describe to the lads that we’re in the entertainment business,” said Stokes.

“Go out and entertain the people who watch us. Try to make every day of a Test as entertaining and watchable as we can. Enjoy the moment.”

All of which is a perfectly reasonable aim, but much harder to put into practice.

Professional athletes are often wracked with self-doubt. It is a rare career where you know that there is always someone out there looking to pinch your place in the team, or squad, and essentially take your job.

Keith Miller, all-rounder in Don Bradman’s Invincibles and a World War II pilot, once said pressure is a Messerschmitt on your tail – “playing cricket is not”.

Pressure, though, can be all-consuming for a cricketer and often comes from within.

It is perhaps, therefore, the removal of pressure that is key to the success of the Stokes-McCullum regime.

After the innings defeat within three days by South Africa in the first Test at Lord’s, England’s only loss under the Ben-Baz axis, Stokes returned to the dressing room, unsure what to say.

“The lads were a little bit down,” he recalled. “The first thing I said was ‘right lads, put your hand up if you want to play golf’.

“They were looking at each other. I’ll never forget the relief on their faces, because they were wondering what would be said after we’d been beaten so badly. That lifted the weight off shoulders.”

Pressure taken away, fun added.

Training can include a penalty shootout, or a game where a helmeted coach tries to head a tennis ball dropping from orbit. McCullum’s questionable taste in music is often the soundtrack to a net session.

The day before the final Test in Karachi, the squad held a six-hitting contest, North v South, then Stokes v McCullum. The coach’s victory meant the captain had to serve dinner to Harry Brook that night.

In the build-up to the Pakistan series, England went to the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix, before the tour of New Zealand in February they will meet for a holiday in Queenstown. McCullum says he is looking forward to showing the team around his homeland, probably with a glass of red in his hand.

If this sounds like the world’s longest stag do, it is all part of a wider plan to keep the players as relaxed as possible so they are in a better position to perform at the peak of their powers.

Theres a time for business, too. Practice sessions, often optional, are targeted and tailored so not a moment is wasted.

“I feel in cricket that a lot of training sessions are for the sake of it and you don’t get much out of it,” said Stokes.

“You just go there because it’s the thing to be seen to do. There has to be an outcome for that effort, not turning up, rolling your arm over, having a bat for 30 mins but not getting anything out of it and not improving as a player.”

The outcome has been spectacular, not only in terms of results, but the way in which they have been achieved.

Run chases against New Zealand at Trent Bridge and India at Edgbaston were the most fun anyone could legally have with their clothes on. Racking up 506-4 in 75 overs on the first day against Pakistan in Rawalpindi bent cricketing logic.

By the time they got to the third Test against Pakistan, England were in full on hysterics. Not content with making Rehan Ahmed the youngest man to ever play Test cricket for England, Ahmed went and picked up 5-48 like a kid with the cheat code to Brian Lara Cricket.

The same England that refused to chase 273 in 75 overs against New Zealand at Lord’s 18 months ago tried to knock off 167 in Karachi in the hour and a bit remaining on the third day. No-one was the least bit surprised when they sent out Ahmed out at number three.

Not that Stokes’ side only play in one way. They can do the hard yards.

Beating South Africa by an innings in the second Test in difficult and ever-changing conditions at Old Trafford was probably their best performance of the summer. The 1,512 balls England had to send down to take 20 wickets on the dormant Rawalpindi pitch was the most they have bowled in a Test win for 30 years.

The second Test in Multan, with Abrar Ahmed spinning his way to 11 wickets, and third Test in Karachi, where they lost the toss, are matches England teams of old would have folded in. For all the talk of Bazball, the tourists altered their style at various points in both.

Looking to the future, England’s biggest problem will be fitting all of their players into an XI. Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer and Jonny Bairstow will all be available at some point in 2023.

There is a question over how they might respond if results take a turn for the worse, which all England fans will be hoping does not happen in an Ashes series that is shaping up to be the most eagerly anticipated in years.

“You guys do this all the time. Let’s just enjoy 3-0,” said McCullum, when the prospect of the Australians was raised.

Perhaps it is left to the rest of us to get excited about the Ashes.

For now, England are having too much fun.

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