England had got into winning positions in all three Test matches. They’d had some decent contributions with the bat, with Jonny Bairstow, Zak Crawley, Joe Root (twice) and Ben Stokes registering centuries. But after collapsing to 103 for 8 on the third day of the Third Test in Grenada to lead by only 10 runs, their series defeat became inevitable.
The next morning they had to turn up to St George’s and go through the painful formality. After scoring 17 more runs in 11.2 painfully forgettable overs, they watched on as the West Indies quickly made mincemeat of the 28-run victory target.
Skipper Root insisted afterwards that he felt his side had played some decent cricket, but it was an assertion which was met with a huge dollop of scepticism. England had just lost a fourth consecutive series, during which time they had won one single Test in 17 attempts, and were rock bottom of the World Test Championship.
That was nine months ago.
Since that day in March England have won nine of their 10 Test matches, and they’ve done it in a way which has completely transformed the sport. Under new captain Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum the shackles have well and truly been kicked off.
In those 10 Test matches their batters have combined for 14 centuries, five of them coming at a strike rate of over 100 as Stokes philosophy of taking the game to opponents with aggressive batting has paid off and then some. If some of us thought that Jonny Bairstow’s back-to-back swashbuckling centuries against New Zealand in the summer were part of an individual decision to go for the jugular we were soon set straight by the way everyone else joined in.
By the time of the First Test in Pakistan this month, England were racking up a mammoth 506 for 4 in just 75 overs on day one with four of their top five batters hitting tons, three of them at greater than a run a ball.
And it hasn’t just been about the aggressive approach with the bat either. Stokes and McCullum have engendered a thriving atmosphere in the dressing room with their selections. They’ve picked Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson together just when the old regime had seemingly been elbowing them both towards the knackers yard. They’ve given Ben Duckett another chance, backed Harry Brook to perform on the biggest stage and – most recently – thrown in 18-year-old leggy Rehan Ahmed to fantastic results.
That defeat in Grenada might as well have been 900 years ago, such is the progress that has been made since March. The 3-0 series whitewash in Pakistan, which they completed with an emphatic eight-wicket win in Karachi on Tuesday, comes despite having only ever won two Test matches in that country in their entire history before this tour. And McCullum has planted most of the praise at the feet of Stokes.
“Ben is always pulling a string somewhere and the guys follow him. It makes it pretty easy from the coach’s box,” McCullum told Sky Sports.
“We see what he does on the field, and there is a genius in a lot of it. He has got an insatiable appetite to keep moving the game forward. It’s the pure passion and drive he has to make a significant difference.
“He is only going to get better, which is quite scary.”
The fear with the kind of cricket they are playing is that once it goes wrong they could end up looking silly, but when that happened in their innings defeat in the First Test against South Africa they immediately bounced back to win the series. The evidence so far suggests that there is far greater longevity in this aggressive approach to Test cricket than even the most positive of supporters might have initially guessed.
With Duckett and Crawley looking like the most stable partnership England have landed upon in years, Brook slotting in brilliantly with three tons in his first four Test matches, Anderson still collecting wickets and youngsters like Rehan being emboldened by a speedy ascent just three matches into his first-class career, this is as exciting a time as the country has known in five-day cricket for some time.
And behind it all is Stokes, England’s trendsetter, innovator and superstar leader. Anything is possible for this team.
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