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Match Analysis

Character becomes destiny as Ben Stokes fires up England's new era

New captain doubles down on gung-ho approach but needs ice-cold Joe Root to finish job

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
This is the way we play. Positive. Proactive. Aggressive. We are the England. The mighty mighty England. Hear us roar.
So, then. What, exactly, is the way this team plays? Even as a hugely spirited victory hangs tantalisingly within reach, there's no immediate answer, because no one has really worked it out yet. We're one Test into England's red-ball reset sorry, "blank-slate" summer, and so it's inevitable that there'll be some teething problems along the way. If this team already had an identity, after all, they wouldn't be in this predicament in the first place.
By the end of another frenetic day at Lord's, however, the answer was beginning to swim into view - and like a vision from some dodgy psychic at the bottom of a mug of cold tea, the interpretation had been rather informed by the carelessly scattered prejudices that had contributed to it.
"I see … a tall dark, no, blond stranger… a great disturbance … two… no, four… no, five disturbances … yes, Ben, you may believe that all hope is lost! But only when you look within yourself at a moment of great fortune, will you find the truth you are looking for… and the true friend who will help to light the way…"
All of which would be a roundabout way of saying that the more things change, the more this England team will turn to Ben Stokes and Joe Root for guidance. The new captain, the old captain … it really doesn't really matter who has the badge of honour. Like Sanga and Mahela, or Sachin and Dravid of yesteryear, there's a vastness to the stature of that middle-order pairing that transcends reinvention. And so - win or lose on Sunday - after some unconscionably hairy moments on the third afternoon, the reaffirmation of that fact was perhaps the most important lesson that this team could have learned.
"There's no one who's come to watch this game over the last three days who would leave disappointed," Stuart Broad said at the close. "It's had a bit of everything. It's up to us as a group of players to do everything we can to get over the line, and it would be very special, but if it doesn't work that way, we step up to the plate in Nottingham. But I've got a really good feeling about tomorrow."
As well he might with a certain kingpin still in situ. The most extraordinary aspect of England's 18-month tale of woe has been Root's refusal to buckle to external pressure, somehow producing his greatest body of work with the bat even while carrying the can for a team that has been plumbing depths not visited for 20 years.
You suspect that, had it not been for a quiet nudge in the ribs from Rob Key, he'd still be ploughing on as captain now - Boxer the carthorse with the pig-headedness of Napoleon, cracking onwards and upwards towards 10,000 Test runs and oblivious to the brickbats for his leadership.
But, much like the man who's now taken over his role, Root neither coveted the captaincy, nor took the honour lightly. All that has ever mattered to either was that the team was in the best hands possible, and true to type, Root's return to the ranks is already serving up one of the most impressive innings of a highlights-studded career. He needed no tea-leaves to tell him how to pace his chase, as he marched through to the close on 77 not out from 131 balls, with Ben Foakes taking his cue in the second-least chaotic innings of an 11-wicket day.
"Joe Root is one of the calmest, England's best-ever batsmen, and Foakesy I thought settled really nicely," Broad added. "And then it's going to be up to the lower-order to chase these runs, so it's set up to be a brilliant morning."
But whether England seal the deal or not - for what would actually be England's second 277-run chase in three summers, after achieving an identical target against Pakistan in 2020 - their sliding-doors moment in the 27th over will need to be acknowledged as the single most significant act of the match, over and above other such contenders as Broad's team hat-trick or Matt Potts' sparky debut.
For if Root was continuity personified, Stokes was something else entirely. As wired as a man who had been partaking in far too many of his endorsement energy drinks, and so desperate to retro-fit the manic displays that had preceded his arrival that he somehow exceeded their artlessness with the most sketchy, streaky, formless slog of his post-superstardom career - for his first 19-ball innings at least.
"It was Tres who had an earpiece in. Tres just went 'it's a no-ball, it's a no-ball!' and we all looked up at the screen and saw Stokesy turning around"
Stuart Broad
Up and at 'em lads! The vibe from the England dressing-room has been unmistakeably positive, undeniably upbeat. Unequivocally, it is a message that they must not now shrink from - and nor can they, with a living, breathing risk-reward ratio such as Brendon McCullum in their corner to egg them on.
But with this philosophy still in its infancy, the top of England's innings was a frightening carousel of chaos - from the decapitation of Alex Lees' off stump as he lost his bearings amid his constant switching between an off and leg guard, to Zak Crawley's latest nick to the cordon, to Ollie Pope's deeply unconvincing extraction for 10, albeit by the ball of the day from Trent Boult.
And surely, it seemed, the most culpable of the lot, Jonny Bairstow's witless slog through the line off Kyle Jamieson, a dismissal as bristling and telegraphed as Kane Williamson's earlier signal for Tim Southee to start warming up. One more ball, Jonny, and New Zealand's most menacing weapon would have been back to grazing at fine leg. A match-up to remember, this was not.
Stokes, however, emerged in a mood to mitigate those failings. It was as if, at this crunch moment of his coronation Test, he did not dare to play it safe for fear of shaming his team-mates into reticence - his idea of leading from the front was to bring up the rear: "Bad luck lads, but that's the right attitude… here, watch me show you how it's done."
Except that he most emphatically did not show how it should be done. Before he could settle, New Zealand turned to the nibbly Colin de Grandhomme - the perfect weapon to frustrate a man in a hurry. By his second delivery, Stokes was giving him the charge; by his sixth, he'd drawn the false stroke. A thick-edge off Southee burgled his first run from his 14th ball, before the horror shot to end all horror shots. A gallop, a thwack, a pirouetting under-edge into the stumps. Stokes threw his head back aghast, but at 76 for 5, with more than 200 runs still required, the skipper had just sunk his own ship.
Except… it wouldn't be Stokes against New Zealand at Lord's without a preposterous slice of good luck. Just as Boult had trodden on the rope in the World Cup final, just as Martin Guptill's shy had deflected off his bat in that crunchy final over - a moment that he would inadvertently recreate with the exact same angles later in his stay - so Stokes' agonised trudge was halted by a call from the third umpire, and the stage was set for England's revival.
"There was big energy. I can't play that down," Broad said, recalling the reaction within the England dressing-room. "It was Tres [Marcus Trescothick] who had an earpiece in. Tres just went 'it's a no-ball, it's a no-ball!' and we all looked up at the screen and saw Stokesy turning around. Of course that gives the whole changing-room a lift, we've been on the flip side of that a few times. It does hurt."
The let-off didn't immediately change Stokes' approach - before the same over was completed, he'd have run himself out with a madcap single to mid-on had Will Young's shy been true - and before de Grandhomme's miserable day could be capped by a heel injury, Stokes was forced to mutter an apologetic "good call, mate" to Root after being sent back for another impossible single.
Root's reply was not recorded for posterity, but in the spirit of the times, England's Iceman might have been tempted to channel his Top Gun OG: "It's not your flying, Maverick, it's your attitude. The enemy's dangerous, but right now you're worse…"
But then came the tea break, and a merciful chance to retake England's stock. Stokes didn't exactly emerge a reformed character - one wild over from Ajaz Patel, featuring two huge sixes and a third hack across the line that all but bowled him saw to that - but something, clearly, had settled within his mindset. His dismissal to an uppercut off the ever-lethal Jamieson now came as a surprise, rather than an inevitability, which made it distinct from the four wickets that had preceded it. But in willing himself to a fifty, in a priceless stand of 90, he'd given his team a puncher's chance.
"He's a situation player, isn't he?" Broad said. "Jos Buttler is really similar - it really suits him when the situation's laid out for him, and he's almost got a target to chase. He's played some incredible knocks in the first innings of Test matches, but he's at his best when he's got the game on the line. And that's always a sign of a world-class player, and a world-class character."
"There's opportunities for players tomorrow to show that again. We've got five wickets left in the in the changing room and someone can really show their character tomorrow."
It's far too early to say whether England as a whole will have shown their true character by the end of it all, however. Whatever state the collective roar ends up taking, and no matter how much clearer Stokes' own vision may now be, right now his team is simply raw.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket