Stokes, Bairstow honoured as Wisden hails England transformation
England's transformation from the timid, safety-first team who bombed out of the group stages of the 2015 World Cup to the swashbuckling, attacking band of cricketers who earlier this month reached the final of the World T20 has been described as "the most uplifting story in international cricket" in the 2016 Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, which is published this week.
Their impressive year, which culminated in a fourth-consecutive home Ashes win as well as a 2-1 overseas victory in South Africa, is reflected in the Five Cricketers of the Year with Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow both named.
Reflecting on a year which began in ignominy but ended with England knocking South Africa off their No. 1 Test ranking and included a host of national record-breaking performances in white-ball cricket, Wisden's editor, Lawrence Booth, welcomed the change of personnel at the ECB that had made such results possible.
"Forget leather on willow," he wrote. "The sound of the English game in early 2015 was palm on forehead." However, the appointment of Andrew Strauss as director of cricket brought a sense of direction: Eoin Morgan was retained as limited-overs captain, Trevor Bayliss came in as coach, and the white-ball formats received care and attention like never before.
"In a delightful turn-up for the form guide, the ECB - having spent the previous year losing touch with reality - were making some smart decisions," Booth added. "Victory at the Wanderers in January 2016, to knock South Africa off the top of the Test rankings, confirmed that a different kind of hope had taken hold. It was the most uplifting story in international cricket all year, the more so for being utterly unexpected."
"Records fell like confetti," he continued. "England passed 400 for the first time in a one-day international, and knocked off 350 in another. They made their highest one-day score overseas, in Dubai (355 for 5), then smashed it a few weeks later, in Bloemfontein (399 for 9). Jos Buttler scored a hundred off 66 balls, then - as if to make up for his tardiness - off 46.
"Stuart Broad took 8 for 15 as Australia were demolished for 60 at Trent Bridge, then 6 for 17 to skittle South Africa for 83 at Johannesburg. The two most resonant national records fell one after the other: in Antigua, Jimmy Anderson overtook Ian Botham's Test-wickets haul, and went on past 400; at Leeds, Alastair Cook surpassed Graham Gooch's Test-runs tally, and approached 10,000."
A major factor in the transformation was the arrival, in May, of the touring New Zealand team - World Cup finalists in Australia two months earlier. Led by Brendon McCullum, their no-consequences attitude to the game brought out the best in England's new-look team, and as a consequence, there is a strong Kiwi theme to Wisden's annual awards.
Both McCullum and his team-mate and successor as captain, Kane Williamson, are named among Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year as well as Australia's Test captain, Steven Smith. Williamson is also named as the leading cricketer in the world for 2015, while his compatriot, Suzie Bates, takes the women's award.
"An English summer has rarely witnessed a more popular touring captain," says Booth of McCullum, who ended his international career with a flourish in February, signing off with a 54-ball century against Australia the fastest in Test history. Of Williamson's award, Booth adds: "in an era of highly gifted young batsmen [this] reflects the measured brilliance he brings to every format of the game. McCullum reckons he is going to be one of the best batsmen the game has ever seen, and it's hard to disagree."
Though Smith finished on the wrong end of a 3-2 Ashes scoreline, his double-century at Lord's and match-shaping 143 at The Oval ensured he finished the series as the leading run-scorer on either side, with 508.
Meanwhile Stokes, who becomes the latest player to adorn the cover of the book, put in a string of match-changing performances, not least his 258 from 198 balls against South Africa at Cape Town, an innings Booth calls "the longest act of wanton violence by an England batsman in any format".
Bairstow, who scored an emotional maiden Test hundred while batting alongside Stokes in that same Cape Town innings, completes the quintet after contributing five Championship centuries and 1,108 runs at 92 to help Yorkshire complete back-to-back Championship titles.
Elsewhere in his Notes by the Editor, Booth reflects on the improbable end of the so-called "big three takeover", stating that "cricket breathed a little more freely" following the departures from their posts of Dean Kino, Giles Clarke, Wally Edwards and N Srinivasan, the "masterminds" behind England's, India's and Australia's seizure of the ICC finances.
"There are reasons to be cheerful," Booth wrote. "They are fragile, it's true. But the age of the Big [Three], as murky an episode as any in the annals of cricket administration, may be over before it has properly begun."
In addition, he argues the case for the ECB to follow the experiment conducted by Australia in their recent Test series against New Zealand, and give day/night Test cricket a chance in England.
"If English crowds can sit through chilly floodlit one-dayers in September, why can't they cope in June, July and August? The ECB chairman Colin Graves is open to the idea, and so are the Test-match counties. And if it takes off everywhere, boards can use the extra revenue to prove to their stars that they needn't become soulless freelancers, forever scouring the globe for their next fix."