After a year full of weirdness (did Liz Truss really happen?) perhaps nothing is more improbable than the fact that Britain’s most lauded heroes at the end of 2022 should arguably be the England men’s cricket team. In historical terms, that is a rarity. Given the situation a few months back, it is a miracle.
In the spring the players had returned from a humiliating winter, defeated by Australia and beaten by the no-longer-mighty West Indies. The off-field hierarchy was purged; the captain Joe Root, a popular figure and a great player but an inadequate leader, was allowed to resign, but would not have been allowed not to.
There was no serious dispute about the succession. It was one of those moments in human affairs when the obvious choice could not be overlooked: the most spectacular, popular and charismatic performer had to get the job even though many harboured doubts about his suitability. The political analogy here was making Boris Johnson prime minister.
English cricket has long experience of this. It is a game where the captaincy is not just an honorific, as in football. Though coaches have seized much strategic power for themselves, the field of play is too large for them to control all the tactics from the pavilion.
Once captains were almost always reliable Oxbridge chaps, even if marginal as players, but in modern times the authorities have often found themselves forced to pick the star turn to lead them into battle. It has always ended in tears — from Tony Greig in the 70s, who incited a rebellion, through to the explosive Ian Botham, the over-carefree Andrew Flintoff and the self-obsessed Kevin Pietersen.
This time they turned to the mercurial and magnificent Ben Stokes, with his own controversial past (fight outside nightclub, suspended from the team, acquitted in court). His record since replacing Root last June is 10 Test matches against four different opponents: won nine, lost one. The previous figure was one win in 17 games.
This week, the players returned home from Pakistan, which for England is the most difficult of all cricket tours. There is a long history of contentiousness in these fixtures. The weather and pitches deaden the craft of the seam bowlers who thrive in their damp homeland. Living conditions have long challenged the fastidious English, with food poisoning a rite of passage. The traditional solace of alcohol is available only in private. Botham infamously said in 1984 it was a place to send one’s mother-in-law.
Now the players have their own chef. But the security situation in Pakistan is infinitely worse and the team was effectively imprisoned, as in the days of Covid cricket.
Were they downhearted? The very reverse. Suddenly, the English have shrugged off their gown of Eeyoreishness and turned into Tigger. They think they can beat anyone. The springtime clear-out led to the appointment of a sparky New Zealander, Brendon “Baz” McCullum, as coach, and he infused the team with his own can-do, safety-last approach, which became known as Bazball.
In Stokes he found a soulmate; he was, after all, the man at the heart of England’s two recent World Cup wins in the miniaturised versions of international cricket. And the wins kept coming. At home they saw off New Zealand 3-0, India in a solitary Test that was Covided off the previous summer, South Africa 3-1 and now 3-0 in Pakistan — which is one more Test win than England had achieved there in the previous 60 years.
Several of these successes came from positions ranging from difficult to unthinkable. An imbecile betting on England out of crazed patriotism at the darkest moment of each game could have funded their retirement. And the coup de grâce came in Karachi this week in a style unthinkable to past generations. An 18-year-old leg-spinner from Leicester, Rehan Ahmed — England’s youngest-ever Test player — set up the path to victory. They needed 167 to win, a very gettable score but one that has been their downfall many times before. England never even blinked and did it at a run a ball, the speed of galloping cheetahs.
It is often hard in cricket to separate the contributions of captain and coach. McCullum clearly set the ton; for instance, abolishing the grind of compulsory net practice and allowing the players to set their own routines. Much of the style is second nature to a generation weaned on short-form cricket, who have happily used batting techniques like the reverse sweep, once taboo in the traditional five-day game.
But Stokes’ leadership has been obvious; Prince Hal transformed into Henry V at a succession of Agincourts. In the field, he is supercharged, unnerving the batsmen by constant bowling and fielding changes, some of them illogical but unsettling — a technique used by the much-admired Mike Brearley. But in Brearley’s pomp 40 years ago, three runs an over was considered speedy going; the new England have averaged five.
In batting fast scoring begets risk. Some see Bazball as a new paradigm destined to bring England success indefinitely, or at least change the game irrevocably. Others think the gods of cricket are being mocked. Australia lie in wait next summer, forewarned and forearmed. “C’est magnifique,” said a French general watching the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, “mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” The Aussies will be thinking the same. But so far, so good.