For a moment in time on Tuesday evening, as the bright sun set over Birmingham following a morning of rain, Ben Stokes hung in the air, grasping at a small leather ball. As Stokes leapt for what would have been a stunning one-handed take, not only was the game in the balance, but also the direction of an entire summer’s cricket and the debate which surrounded it. This moment was also a perfect metaphor for Stokes’ captaincy so far, a leap of faith which could produce the outrageous. “Bazball”, as it has been coined, is a swing for the fences – an all or nothing attempt to turn a group of under achievers into world beaters. In that moment, Stokes was Icarus, flying for the sun, reaching for glory.
Then he dropped the ball.
And with that moment, we were reminded that Stokes is human, and his brave new cricketing frontier is fallible. Australia went on to win the game by two wickets, with their own colossal captain Pat Cummins steering the side home with a brave, rear-guard action, ably supported by Nathan Lyon, attaining their own closure by slaying the demons of Stokes’ own single-handed victory at Headingley in 2019. For England, not all is lost. On the surface, their record under Stokes goes to 11 wins from 14 tests, admirable in any era. They go 1-0 down in a 5-match series, which is by no means terminal. But questions are now being asked about their approach.
How do you balance aggression with pragmatism? Is it better to be exciting losers or boring winners? Once you’ve created the chaos, surely this is the time to go back to being normal and press home the advantage? These are all questions that have been asked of Stoke and McCullum by leading pundits since the test match at Edgbaston. Typically, both have responded by saying they will not take a backwards step and, if anything, they will go harder at Australia in the future. They have talked about making a statement to Australia, currently the world’s best test team. They stood toe to toe to them at Edgbaston and had the better of the game. Undoubtedly, if England had been more ruthless, they could, maybe should, have won this test.
It is for this reason that now is the time to double down on “Bazball”, face down the doubters and continue to play this new, exciting brand of cricket. It is easy forget where this team has come from. Joe Root’s last test as captain saw England meekly surrender to a 10-wicket defeat in the West Indies, losing the series in the process, having played some of the most turgid cricket fans have had the misfortune of watching. It was a team devoid of confidence, winless in 9 matches and going in completely the wrong direction.
Root’s own performances speak to the potential of where this side can go if they keep backing themselves. Since Stokes took over as captain, Root has averaged 58.22 with the bat, up from his average of 46.44 during his time as captain. He has looked like a player who has found a new lease of life under the Stokes regime and tweeted his love of his teammates after the defeat at Edgbaston. In most teams, a captain returning to the ranks has been a difficult transition, but Stokes has enabled Root to flourish and find his best form, it will be needed if England are to overturn the 1-0 deficit and win the Ashes. Jonny Bairstow, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad have also followed similar redemptive journeys. They have been here before and won’t be phased by the task at hand.
Stokes’ first innings declaration was a contentious issue, but let’s not forget that it put them in with a chance of winning the game. If England had batted on and posted 50 more runs, this would have taken time out of the game and left Australia with no chance of winning the game. On a slow pitch, blocking out for a draw would have been eminently achievable and the game may have drifted. The final day instead saw a packed house and a huge TV audience watching a dramatic finish, which is exactly what the game of test cricket needs. England certainly need to be more ruthless if they are to bounce back at Lord’s. They need to take every chance in the field and not let Australia off the hook when they can seize the advantage.
This should not be done by abandoning the principles which have dragged the test team kicking and screaming back into a position where they can challenge the best test team in the world. If there is anyone who can fly that close to the sun and comeback with a lovely tan, a bucket hat, with wings intact, holding the Ashes urn, it is Ben Stokes.