For those who prefer their international cricket played with a red ball rather than white, the past six weeks have required a great deal of patience. Ben Stokes has been among them, England’s Test captain itching to rekindle the magic that lit up the first half of the summer through those four rip-roaring victories against New Zealand and India.
To that end Stokes held a team meeting on Sunday when his players reconvened before the first Test against South Africa which starts on Wednesday; a refresher course intended to reaffirm the positive ethos that himself and the head coach, Brendon McCullum, are demanding.
“It’s the last time I will ever write on a whiteboard,” he joked after their final training session on Tuesday. “I needed to ask how to spell ‘environment’.”
Stokes may be unsure of the precise letters in the word but appears to have a firm grasp on its meaning. Players young and old are visibly relishing the new ethos of relaxed training sessions, aggressive play and selectorial loyalty under his leadership. Winning clearly helps here but their upbeat approach to each day and session has been an obvious point of difference from the angst of the previous regime’s final year.
There have of course been sliding‑doors moments along the way, be it Colin de Grandhomme’s no-ball at Lord’s, dropped catches at Trent Bridge or New Zealand’s failure to review an lbw shout against Jamie Overton at Headingley just five runs into a score of 97 that made up one half of a match-defining seventh‑wicket stand of 241. England have also profited from the particularly celestial form of Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root, the pair making hay against what was a substandard batch of Dukes balls.
But they have also wriggled out of some tight spots characterfully, such as shipping 553 against New Zealand at Trent Bridge or overcoming a first‑innings deficit of 132 against India at Edgbaston. Four targets they may previously have baulked at have also been vaporised, not that Stokes is too fussed about the end result. “Honestly, if we’d lost 4-0 I wouldn’t be sitting here changing the way I ask the lads to go out and play,” he said.
The hope now, he said, was this filters down to the county game and energises the support base for both England and the longer format as a whole.
The question asked by many in response is how England will fare when they bat first and how sustainable this all is long term. After the diet of white-ball internationals and the Hundred comes a three-match series against South Africa, the leading side in the World Test Championship, and thus the latest examination. That said, a little extra patience may still be required. The recent heatwave has turned London’s parks and commons as beige as one of Richie Benaud’s jackets – Lord’s, lush green, has remained immune – but the forecast for day one is not too clever.
Dean Elgar, a South Africa captain whose batting is likely to exhaust the synonyms for “gritty” over the next four weeks, is among the sceptics regarding “Bazball”. He said he is braced for passages of play when the numbers on the scoreboard spin like wheels of a fruit machine but, while insisting he was not criticising the efforts of New Zealand and India in the field, fancies his attack will serve as the antidote overall. “I would like to think from a bowling point of view, our bowlers are big, tall, fast and strong buggers and we have ticked the boxes in regards to the spin department,” he said.
England (confirmed): Alex Lees, Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes (c), Ben Foakes (wk), Jack Leach, Matt Potts, Stuart Broad, Jimmy Anderson.
South Africa (possible): Dean Elgar (c), Sarel Erwee, Keegan Petersen, Aidan Markram, Rassie van der Dussen, Kyle Verryenne (wk), Marco Jansen, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje.
Among them is the classy Kagiso Rabada, light on overs but expected to be fit after an ankle injury, similarly Lungi Ngidi and the pacy Anrich Nortje who also sat out the recent warmup against the Lions. If selected, the newcomer Marco Jansen offers a left-arm angle from a 6ft 7in frame – even if his required deployment at No 7 would look high – and they have two seasoned spinners to choose from in Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer. The former is likely to get the nod at Lord’s despite a mauling from the Lions but the latter – a proven expert on English surfaces – should feature at some stage.
Stokes described England’s selection as “easy”, their only tweak coming via a return for Ben Foakes behind the stumps after missing Edgbaston with Covid-19. While Ollie Robinson appears sharp and incisive once more after early season fitness issues, Stokes and McCullum feel Stuart Broad’s interventions – such as the third-morning “team hat-trick” against New Zealand on this ground – outweigh his record of 15 wickets at 38 this summer. If Broad and Jimmy Anderson open the bowling in both innings they will have done so in 200 innings in Test cricket, while the former is also one wicket away from 100 Test victims at Lord’s.
Both veterans will be keen to see if the latest Dukes balls to come out of the factory in Walthamstow hold up better than those used previously – the flip side being that if they are hardier than before, more questions may be asked of the batters.
During a different time, a player such as Zak Crawley – averaging 17.75 so far this summer – would be deemed to be playing for his spot. But Stokes was having none of it, hailing the right-hander’s selfless approach and describing his 100-run opening stand with Alex Lees during the run chase at Edgbaston as his favourite passage of play to date.
Such a response is pretty much the Stokes way these days. He may have retired from one-day internationals recently and decided the whiteboard is not for him but, when it comes to England’s approach to Test cricket, the captain’s mind is very much made up.