Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo
WI v NZ (1)
CWC League 2 (1)
Women's Hundred (2)
CWC CL B (2)
RL Cup (8)
BAH v KUW (1)
Men's Hundred (2)
In a small sample size, the third Test between England and New Zealand was perhaps the best example of the problem-solving, spirit and intent Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes want from their team.
The reaction to being 55 for 6 in their first innings, the manner in which they picked off New Zealand to restrict them in the second innings, then chasing down 296 in 55 overs for the loss of just three wickets. For all the self-promotion from the players about how different things are going to be done in this era, their work across five days at Headingley said it best. Or so we thought. It turns out the most cavalier episode of an emphatic victory to seal an emphatic 3-0 series win was happening in the mind of Stokes.
Speaking at Edgbaston on Thursday ahead of the series-completing fifth Test against India, Stokes revealed he deliberately under-bowled himself to challenge England's attack of Stuart Broad, Matthew Potts, Jamie Overton and Jack Leach to test the limits of their excellence and get the job done themselves. It was most notable in the first innings, when Stokes did not even turn his arm over out of boredom as New Zealand scored 329 in 117.3 overs. He went on to send four overs down (0 for 30), in the second innings, finally bringing himself on 22 overs into the New Zealand second innings.
Thoughts on the periphery were of an injury preventing him from bowling, which made sense given Stokes was ill in the build-up. But it transpires neither team-mates nor McCullum and the other coaches knew of his tactic. Eventually, he had to let the latter know what he was up to during the match before telling all to the players once victory was achieved.
"I really wanted to push the bowlers as far as I possibly could," Stokes said. "To make them realise what they can do.
"For the first three days, I did," he said, when asked if he kept this plan to himself. "I wasn't going to mention that until the end of the Test match because I didn't want it to get around everybody. But when Baz and Jon Lewis were saying 'are you going to bowl?' then, okay, I said 'this is why I'm doing it.'"
No doubt their reactions at the time were of confusion, indeed this might have been an exchange that confirmed to McCullum that Stokes has him covered for aggression, as he relayed after the Test. Some of the bowlers were less than enthused: Broad, who bowled 47 overs in the match, wasn't particularly happy.
"It's funny, bowlers have your green zones, amber zones and red zones based on how much work you've done at the end of a Test. Broady said he's created a new zone called the burgundy zone. But that Test match was bigger than the result, as I keep saying. I honestly believe bowling out the best team in the world with three seamers and a spinner has done everybody the world of good.
"Matt Potts, 23 years of age, in his third Test match must have taken a lot of confidence knowing that he can back up spell, after spell, after spell, after spell. Broady, 36, nearly bowling 50 overs in the game, always looks threatening. Leachy bowling 70 overs [70.5] in the game on a wicket that's not really known for spinners doing well.
"You've got Broady completely at the other end to someone like Matty Potts' career. But doing what they did that whole week was really pushing them to their limits and making them understand what they are capable of doing."
It has to be one of the more extreme calls from Stokes, bordering on the reckless. Of all the unwritten rules of Test cricket, bowler workload management is undoubtedly the most sensible. You only need to look at England's own injury list, featuring Jofra Archer, Mark Wood, Olly Stone, Saqib Mahmood, Matt Fisher and Ollie Robinson to see the dangers of heaping too much on quick bowlers, particularly early on in their careers. Potts is clearly robust, but it will be interesting to see how he pulls up after four Tests in five weeks having come into the side off the back of 233.5 overs for Durham in the County Championship.
For any accusations of a lack of duty of care aimed at Stokes, the treatment of Zak Crawley offers a counter. In a month when every player has earned some form of glory, the Kent opener has been walking around with a dark cloud above his head. An average of 14.50 from six innings has him visibly uncertain at the crease, and he has seemingly burned all the goodwill earned by an impressive 77 during the Sydney Test at the start of the year and then his second century (121) in March against West Indies.
The conversation around Crawley has changed, from a batter just about to turn the corner and come into a sizeable run of form to one who is never going to be consistent but will eventually pay out big, like a slot machine. For a brief moment in his last innings, he looked to be hitting himself back into nick. Unfortunately on 25, he over-reached for a drive to a ball from offspinner Michael Bracewell that was not full enough, tamely guiding it into the hands of Kane Williamson at extra cover.
Stokes' unwavering support of Crawley is perhaps the only aspect of his tenure that has been poorly received among a section of supporters. From the start, the message has been this squad will be given a long time to perform in part because those selected, particularly in the batting, were regarded as the best in their positions. Crawley included.
"You look back at the series against New Zealand and at the times that he has spent out the middle: he's been very commanding and has such a huge presence at the crease," Stokes said.
"He hits the ball effortlessly hard. And he's that close to a huge score. He got off to a flyer at Headingley: 20 to 25, it's nothing to write home about and he'll openly say that. But it's the manner of how he's played when he's been at the crease which is a real exciting thing. And I've no doubt that he will continue to go out there and play like that, because he's a real team player."
Quite how Crawley is coping with this period is anyone's guess. It probably helps that he's not on social media and thus can focus on the positivity from those that matter most. At the same time, there will be desperation to not look like a spare part in a team capturing the nation's imagination. From the outside looking in, he seems the only one not having a good time.
As it happens, this one-off Test with India will be his 25th cap for England, involving a presentation ceremony to mark the milestone. He will go in with an average of just 26.68, and seven scores of 50 or more, though one was 267 against Pakistan in 2020 which will no doubt occupy a lot of the focus in Friday's morning speech. It will be a proud moment for Crawley and a polarising one further afield.
Stokes, however, is only concerned with the former and appreciates that the last few weeks of dealing with Crawley as a person will give him the best chance of coming good again as a cricketer.
"He's still Zak," Stokes said when asked of Crawley's mood. "He is a very funny man. But you never really know how someone is really internally. So when things aren't going so well for someone you've obviously got to do the right thing, if it is pumping his tyres up or whatever it is, but you can only say so many times that you've got the backing of us because it almost sounds like a broken record when you keep saying it.
"But I'm going to say it again: he's got the backing of myself, Brendon and everybody in the changing room. I'm giving everyone in this team the time to go out and perform and show the world what they're all about as players."
It is a period of extremes for Stokes at present. The bigger picture is he is doing a lot right. England are winning again, players and fans are enjoying being a part of Test cricket in this country after nearly two years of apathy. India will test that resolve, as will South Africa later this summer.
They will also test the robustness of Stokes' balance. Pushing bowlers, and coddling Crawley, both are immediate-term plays from his captaincy sketchbook. Even with such a belligerent attitude to tactics and selection, maintaining that equilibrium is only going to get tougher.