June 15, 2022: The changes at the top seems to be working wonders for England. Starting the home season with a new director (cricket operations) in Rob Key, a new coach in Brendon McCullum and a new captain in Ben Stokes appears to have galvanized England into winning matches by playing positive, attractive cricket. Indeed, there were touches of white ball cricket during their chase on Tuesday when they knocked off the requisite 299 – always a formidable target in the fourth innings – in just 50 overs.
This is a new England very different from the team that won only one of the last 17 Tests before the first game against New Zealand at Lord’s earlier this month. A second successive run chase against a team that won the inaugural World Test Championship a year ago underlines a clear upsurge in England’s fortunes and the manner in which things are shaping we could see much more memorable cricket from Stokes and his men during the summer – and beyond.
Yes, sometimes a change at the top is required for the fortunes of a team to change. We have had a prime example in India when in 1971 Ajit Wadekar was appointed captain replacing the long-time incumbent MAK Pataudi. There was no questioning Pataudi’s leadership qualities but where were the results everyone asked as India went from one defeat to another. Pataudi who led a team in which the new ball attack was a farce, the batting brittle and fielding sub-standard was often luckless too. Chairman of the selection committee Vijay Merchant when queried about why he preferred Wadekar replied that he had approached the question of the captaincy as a director of a company would who when faced with the problem of a decline in production might ponder the advisability of replacing the production manager. One could not be sure the new man would succeed he added but some change seemed desirable. And as the whole cricketing world knows India went on to create history by winning the Test series in the West Indies and then another in England the same year.
It might be too early to speak of such historic exploits for this England side but the portents are encouraging. The one serious weakness – the top order batting – seems to be getting better if the performances of Alex Lees and Ollie Pope are an indication. There was nothing to be concerned about the middle order batting which was manned by Joe Root, Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Foakes. The bowling without James Anderson and Stuart Broad was posing problems but now that the vastly experienced duo is back and still good enough to bowl out New Zealand twice in two Tests, that gap appears to have been covered.
What is particularly significant is the manner in which England have achieved these two victories. Traditionally England players have been known for their cool professionalism, ruthless efficiency and textbook methods. Yes, now and then they produce an ebullient cricketer like Ian Botham or Freddie Flintoff, Kevin Petersen or Ben Stokes. The cricket they have produced at Lord’s and Trent Bridge has been full of high spirits and very entertaining, the kind which brings in the crowds. Root, whose batting is generally composed of classical strokes, has been that much more adventurous while Bairstow’s big hitting on Tuesday was simply breathtaking. And the victory achieved in the face of a New Zealand first innings total of 553 must rank amongst England’s finest.
(Partab Ramchand is a veteran sports journalist, the views expressed here are personal.)