SPECIAL REPORT: Fancy hitting the winning runs, Jimmy?

One vignette of last week’s scintillating Test victory over India summed up Ben Stokes’ ethos as England captain perfectly. 

There were still the best part of two dozen runs to score to secure a fourth straight success and no one in the home dressing room at Edgbaston was padded up.

For the second time in the innings, Stuart Broad had taken his place as next-man-in but stood himself down as Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow rattled through the requirement at a remarkable pace. 

Joe Root embraces Jonny Bairstow after England win the third Test against New Zealand  

The previous evening, in keeping with the convention-bashing within England’s inner sanctum, Broad had been dubbed the ‘nighthawk’, the inverse of the nightwatchman, a player with an edict to attack rather than defend.

The loss of a wicket late in the day has traditionally been met by the potentially sacrificial entrance of a lower-order player as protection. But Stokes is not a traditionalist and believes the best time to attack an enemy is always when they least expect it. In keeping with the belief, he reprised the role late next morning.

Had England’s overnight pair been separated, Broad’s instructions were to minimise the chances of India taking the second new ball via a batting blitz.

When such a course of action lost its relevance, Broad removed his batting gear and Stokes approached Jimmy Anderson, to ask whether he fancied the chance of a career first, hitting the winning runs in a Test match. Sam Billings was also offered such an opportunity. Both declined the offer.

It is reminiscent of the kind of thing that might happen in a Sunday club match, rather than at the very highest level, but comparisons are not coincidental. One of the prime goals of Stokes’ leadership manifesto has been to create a more relaxed atmosphere, encouraging the players to enjoy playing with their mates. And he has been keen for them all to share the wealth.

England coach Brendon McCullum isn't a fan of the term 'Bazball' that's been aimed at his team

England coach Brendon McCullum isn’t a fan of the term ‘Bazball’ that’s been aimed at his team

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It might not be viewed as the done thing. Stokes, however, is a breaker of moulds. He turned up to his official unveiling as England’s 81st Test captain blazer-less, remember.

Regimented routines have been removed too in a much more relaxed approach during Test matches: on the first day things remain as was, with players turning up as they did under previous regimes, but whereas they tended to arrive between two and two and a quarter hours before the start daily, they now travel in much later, with hotel departure times pushed back and the feeling of pre-match practice being like an army drill removed. Instead, individuals have been empowered to take responsibility for their own preparation.

Another feature of this remarkable turnaround has been the ability to seize moments and develop waves of confidence.

Stokes would have batted first at Lord’s against New Zealand at the start of June but lost the toss and so the new approach of chasing came about not by design but circumstance. It was only once Root had guided the team to that watershed win that they ran with the momentum.

Ben Stokes has urged his team-mates to play like rockstars as they look to rip up convention

Ben Stokes has urged his team-mates to play like rockstars as they look to rip up convention

During that first match of the international summer, England scored at 3.4 runs per over; New Zealand at 3.2. There was nothing to set it apart from previous internationals other than the end result, following a horror period of one win in 17.

Only once Stokes and England coach Brendon McCullum flooded the environment with positivity post-match did run-rates cascade. Equally, while Stokes has undoubtedly challenged the natural order of things and flipped convention with his calls — at times, it has felt like the moon might rise in a morning had he so wished — he has also benefited from two players in Bairstow and Root being in imperious form.

Bairstow has struck six hundreds in eight appearances this year, as many as he managed in his first 79 matches. Neither should it be forgotten that his rich run began with an Ashes hundred in Sydney in January, then took in another in the Caribbean. The new regime should be given credit for recognising his touch.

Despite a lack of match practice, the Yorkshireman walked out of the Indian Premier League and back into Test cricket. It was noticeable that Stuart Broad praised his team-mate’s intent in his column in The Mail on Sunday when he made a shot-a-ball 16 in the second innings at Lord’s.

Jonny Bairstow has played a crucial part in the Stokes-McCullum revolution of England

Jonny Bairstow has played a crucial part in the Stokes-McCullum revolution of England

Root’s class has been permanent. Indeed, it ran through the pandemic and the woeful sequence of results at the end of his captaincy tenure. A period in which he had to navigate his team through series of bio-secure arrangements, daily Covid tests and isolation from their families.

Those within the dressing room also acknowledge the liberating effect freedom has had on performances. ‘You are able to do normal things, go to the shop, go for a beer, go for dinner, see your friends, see your family,’ Bairstow said this week.

They are clearly enjoying each other’s company as well as each other’s success. Stokes has been the most animated in celebrations for hundreds and five-wicket hauls. Anderson, the most recent recorder of the latter, says he wishes he was 10 years younger such has been his enjoyment on the eve of his 40th birthday.

Next winter, they will prepare for a Test series in Stokes and McCullum’s native New Zealand in the country’s adventure capital Queenstown. Fun will be at the forefront of their thinking. It has certainly been invested in their cricket and the public have responded by flocking to free fifth days, a policy started by Nottinghamshire for the good of the Test game.

As Jack Leach said after England made a mockery of history with their fourth successful chase of a score in excess of 275: ‘Other teams might be better, but none are braver.’

Under Stokes, it is exciting to contemplate what might be next.

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