Entertainers, rockstars and dudes riff on Test cricket and bedlam ensues

Is there anything more predictable than a McCullum playlist filled with nothing but power ballads?

Joe Root brings out the pinky finger celebration  •  PA Photos/Getty Images

Joe Root brings out the pinky finger celebration  •  PA Photos/Getty Images

The night before the fifth Test between England and India at Edgbaston, Ben Stokes watched "Elvis", the biographical drama about rock n' roll icon Elvis Presley.
You would not describe Stokes or his teammates as cinephiles, though they often take trips to the cinema in Test match weeks to kill time. Picking the film is usually pretty easy, though Stokes' penchant for a horror flick can polarise.
On the odd occasion they have drawn inspiration from the big screen. During the 2019-20 tour of South Africa, they were blown away by Sam Mendes' "1917", about the quest of two British soldiers delivering a message to call off a doomed operation. It helped that Mendes, a cricket fan, named three characters after Stokes, Jos Buttler and Alastair Cook.
This time, there weren't too many cricket references - even if director Baz Luhrmann is an Aussie - but there was a particular moment that struck a chord with Stokes.
During the 1950s, Elvis held a reputation as a troublemaker for swirling up uncontrollable frenzies at his gigs with his antics on stage. He was even threatened with jail time. One particular scene in the film relays an incident when Elvis is warned not to perform any of his signature hip-thrusting movements. Specifically: don't even wiggle a finger. Elvis gets on stage, hoards in front of him being held back by security, strikes a pose and says the following: "There's a lot of people saying a lot of things. But in the end you've got to listen to yourself." He then raises his right hand and wiggles his little finger, before breaking into his usual act. Bedlam ensues.
Stokes was so enamoured by this moment, in part because he saw a bit of himself in it. An entertainer who for the longest time had felt bound by cricket's conservative ways, particularly at Test level. And so on the morning of day one, England got into a huddle and he referenced the scene, along with the little finger wiggle and, having previously urged them to consider themselves as entertainers, implored them to go into this series-saving match with India thinking they were "rockstars". He then looked over at Joe Root: "What are we, Rooty?"
"Rockstars!" Replied the former captain. And off they went to win the game, bringing down the house with a record chase of 378 inside 76.4 overs.
Stokes went to the finger wiggle on day four when he took the four wickets that ended India's second innings on 245 with a lead of 377. Root celebrated his hundred on day five with it, too, encouraged by his skipper who looked so chill on the balcony the only way you knew he was in next was because it said so on the scorecard. He also had his pads on, but you just don't know with this lot anymore. He might have been wearing them for a laugh.
"I don't think I'll ever be able to feel or look like a rockstar," admitted Root as he sheepishly explained the celebration. "But for 10 seconds," he added, "I might have done today. That's what the little pinky was about."
Hands up - who thought Root, manner born, FEC, high elbow, would ever refer to himself as a rockstar? But here he is, part of the gang, joining in with all the unserious bits around the very serious bits. There in the house party, where they're all having the best times, even if he's making sure the empties are going into the recycling on the way.
If there is a warm feeling in English cricket right now, it's because the heat is emanating from that England dressing room. A room with some big egos are all pulling together. And above all else, seemingly having the most fun. Enough that their captain can go watch a film, quote his favourite bit and get the best batter of his generation to shout about being a rockstar in front of those he was leading with a guard up just a few months ago, then indulge an in-joke to celebrate one of his more remarkable knocks.
This success is not solely built on private schools, bowling machines and performance programmes but heart, nu-soul and genuine camaraderie. This isn't Andy Flower's grizzled, top-of-the-Test rankings England or Steve Waugh's Australia - and, heck, it might never be. These are just some dudes being dudes, handing kebabs down a pissed-up human chain at 4am and somehow playing the best, most entertaining long-form cricket this country has seen for generations.
It is alright to have watched them over the last month and come away not really knowing what's going on. This team have gone from one win in 17 to four in a row against two teams that contested last year's World Test Championship. They have taken down fourth-innings targets of 277, 299, 296 and now an English record 378. Only five times in Test history have a team chased down 290-plus scores at a rate of 4.5 an over - three of them are England in the last month. Seemingly off the back of nothing more than vibes.
Even the vibes, though, have been given some thought. For instance, both Stokes and vibesman-in-chief Brendon McCullum knew they wanted to make Test cricket feel a little bit more casual, believing many cricketers, both in and out of the team, have been crushed by the weight of it. They knew they could not brainwash them into believing Test cricket didn't need to be taken so seriously given how many English kids grow up dreaming to play it. But they could strip away some of the elements to at least make it "smart casual".
Now, nets last for as little or as long as players like. There's a start time for organisation's sake given the opposition trains before or after, but otherwise, batters can just bat until they feel good. That extends to match days. While previously the team would aim to travel together to the ground to be on deck between 9am for an 11am start, they just need to be in the dressing room half an hour beforehand if they don't want to do any warming up (if they have already batted in the match, for instance). A couple of messages did have to go around ahead of this India Test to remind the players of the 10:30am start but, so far this summer, no one has abused the lenient call time.
The results, so far, speak well of this approach. In fact, "approach" seems too formal a word. But what you are seeing is players taking that sense of ease out to the middle with them. Zak Crawley and Alex Lees's century opening stand - now England's fastest - was testament to that. Two players who in any other iteration of this Test side would be waiting for the axe going out there and swinging it themselves.
Ridding the dressing room of the usual anxiety, especially in a chase, has been surprisingly easy. Language has been a big part of that, with Stokes' positivity on Monday ahead of the fourth innings all about getting the total, none of this "have a look" fluff. As Lees said at the end of day four after his 56, the players joked about Stokes winning the toss at the start of this match and saying "he'll have a chase", such has been the straight-talking. Similarly, the revelation Stuart Broad has been primed as a "Nighthawk", ready to go out and swat boundaries in that very Stuart Broad way if England lost a wicket late on an evening when they were after a score, speaks of trying to break convention and have a laugh while doing so.
As withdrawn as he might seem from the outside, having given just one written media interview since joining at the end of May, McCullum is an active part of all this. Perhaps the most enjoyable nugget to emerge from the last month is the Kiwi has a big bluetooth speaker he uses to play his favourite music, whether on the team bus or the changing room, where, amazingly, it is on throughout the day. It was on full volume in Edgbaston at around 5pm on Tuesday, as the players and coaching staff supped beers on the balcony and on the outfield, scored by the likes of Springsteen and Bon Jovi. Is there anything more predictable than a McCullum playlist filled with nothing but power ballads?
During the Leeds Test, McCullum made a note of sitting in the public bar at the team's Marriott Hotel rather than the Executive Suite, with its guards, table service and discretion. He'd often sit at one of the bigger tables, which was visible from the street, and chat to coaches or players who wanted his ear, offering wisdom or simply a few jokes, like some everyman King Solomon.
So much of what England are doing at the moment can be boiled down to the question, "Why?" Like inquisitive children, that has been their starting point for any conversation, leading to the kind of searching that every now and again elicits a "yeah, good point - why do we do this like that?" On balance, the follow-up answers have improved matters. The best has arguably given us The Nighthawk, the less certain put managing director Rob Key in a bit of a quandary as he continues his search for a role-appropriate outfit because he didn't see the need to wear a suit.
All of this makes this England Test side more relatable and, importantly, accessible. For so long the barriers have been up, the rules draconian and the dress code restricting. Now, this team seem to feel it is their duty to provide something for all-comers. They've mentioned a few times that they want to bring more fans to Test cricket, and to be honest it seemed a bit too altruistic. But even the most cynical must be starting to crack. Because it's working.
If you were lucky enough to witness the final day at Edgbaston, Headingley, Trent Bridge or the one that kicked this all off at Lord's, you'd have done so without paying a penny. Lord's was a clerical twist, with Root finishing that particular chase inside 20 overs to entitle punters to full refunds. The rest, however, were as part of a buy-in from the respective counties that getting more eyes on the game is what it's all about.
Amid all the beer and skittles, there's a steel to this team that should not be dismissed. As Stokes said, relaying a line Jack Leach had said to him moments earlier: "A great way to explain is that teams are perhaps better than us, but teams won't be braver than us."
They have turned a sizeable corner and are full of belief. And perhaps the most compelling aspect is, after years of doubt, they have come to an important realisation: Why can't Test cricket be fun?

Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo