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News

Stokes: England must build a team that can win in Australia

England captain empathises with footballers amid public pressure for results

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
09-Jul-2024
Ben Stokes says that England's evolution as a Test team has to begin in this summer's home series against West Indies, because he wants to be able to lead a team into the 2025-26 Ashes tour in 18 months' time that can "not just compete with Australia, but beat them".
Speaking at Lord's on the eve of the first Test, Stokes admitted it had been a hard decision to tell James Anderson that his 188-match career has to come to an end this week. However, he acknowledged that the shortcomings exposed in England's recent 4-1 series loss in India had forced them to redouble their efforts to be ready for their next big overseas challenge Down Under - arguably the one by which the success of Stokes' era as captain will be judged.
"I'm not going to lie: I want us to be able to take a squad out there that I know is going to go at Australia," Stokes said. "I'll be nearly four years as captain when we go out there. I want to be able to go out there knowing we've done everything possibly right over this 18-month period, to go out there with a strong enough squad to not just compete with Australia, but to beat them."
As Stokes himself admitted, the throw-forward nature of his comments was rather at odds with the 'live in the moment' message that had been a bedrock of the so-called Bazball era. But, with Stuart Broad and Jonny Bairstow already gone from that original genre-bending team, and with Anderson soon to follow, England's focus has undergone a subtle shift in the four months since the disappointments of the India tour.
"It's probably the first time you've heard me speak like that about something so far away, but again it goes back to our progression as a side," Stokes added. "I want this team to progress over the 18 months, so I'm focusing on that, because I want us to go out to Australia and win the Ashes back."
That ambition, in turn, pointed to an underlying flaw in England's recent record. For all the excitement that Bazball has stirred up among the cricket-watching public, Stokes bridled when it was put to him that - despite providing some exhilarating entertainment along the way - England have not actually won any of their three full series in the preceding 18 months, including last summer's compelling home Ashes campaign.
Aside from a ten-wicket win in a one-off Test against Ireland, their last outright series win was an unprecedented 3-0 clean sweep in Pakistan in December 2022.
"Let's just take that in," he said. "Before the last four Tests in India, we won [the first Test] in New Zealand [in February 2022], then lost the second Test by one run. We came back from 2-0 down against Australia, had a drawn match [at Old Trafford] because of weather. [Saying that] we haven't won a series in that time, I think is going into it a bit too much.
"I won't lie, those last four matches in India were incredibly disappointing, but going at it like that is a bit uncalled for. There's so much that goes into winning a Test match. We go out there to win, but we put a focus on the way we play our cricket, knowing that we have found a way that brings the best out of us as individuals and a team."
England's India series did feature one extraordinary high point, as Ollie Pope's second-innings 196 helped overturned a 190-run deficit in the first Test at Hyderabad, before Tom Hartley capped his debut with matchwinning figures of 7 for 62. Thereafter, England had their moments but ultimately were forced to blink at the key moments of the campaign, a fact that Stokes both acknowledged and vowed to learn from.
"We know if we play to our capabilities, we will have given ourselves the best chance of winning that game," he said. "[Since India], what we probably have a better understanding of now is, when the opposition might be on top, how do we handle that pressure? How do we get through that, and put it back onto them?
"Sometimes it takes a hiccup to say, 'if this is going to happen again, how do we handle that?' But it's also knowing that we need to put pressure back onto the opposition, rather than taking a backward step and letting them dictate terms. When we are putting pressure back on opposition, that is when we feel as individuals and as a team [that] our mindset is so much clearer."
Stokes added that he empathised with England's footballers at the European Championship in Germany. They face the Netherlands on Wednesday evening having reached an unprecedented third semi-final in the space of four competitions, yet still come under immense criticism from a demanding public that expects even more.
"It's not surprising, is it?" Stokes said. "I want all English teams to do well, whatever sport it may be, so as a professional sportsman myself I find it quite tough to see the backlash that the footballers have gotten and they always seem to get.
"They're in the semi-finals of the Euros, they've done what they needed to do to get to where they are now. Something that me and Brendon have tried to do is to just relax everyone and keep that noise out. The dressing room is the most important thing.
"When you're an outsider, like I am from the England football team, it's tough to see that kind of stuff, because I know that all that scrutiny and added pressure isn't going to help that team go out there and perform as well as they would like to.
"I know the public wants to see English sports teams do really well, but I find it tough sometimes when people are quick to hammer down on them. But I understand it, because I know how passionate this country is about seeing their teams do well."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket