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Match Analysis

Ben Stokes puts prep over precedent as England ease towards Pakistan challenge

Decision to scrap meaningless final day of warm-up a further sign of England's new mindset

Ben Stokes has a hit in the middle on the third day of England's warm-up in Abu Dhabi  •  ECB Images

Ben Stokes has a hit in the middle on the third day of England's warm-up in Abu Dhabi  •  ECB Images

Friday in Abu Dhabi was meant to be day three of England's warm-up against the Lions. That was until Ben Stokes put it to the Test squad that something more productive could be achieved, rather than simply completing the match.
The result was irrelevant - a day's batting for 501 for seven on Wednesday had given way to chasing 77 overs' worth of leather for 411 for 9 on Thursday - so the skipper floated to his team-mates that perhaps a two-hour session of middle practice and nets would see them right, ahead of their flight to Pakistan on Saturday morning. The reaction was unanimous.
"We went around our group and we asked where everyone was at, and what they felt like they needed," Stokes said, when explaining the change of plans.
"Sometimes with the warm-up games, you can get into the last day of that and it becomes a thankless task, and you don't get out of it what you really wanted to. I thought the first two days were really good. The lads got a real good opportunity to bat out in the middle and obviously spent all day in the field yesterday.
"I feel as a group, we're in a position now where we can go and ask the individuals exactly what we need without forcing them into doing something. We've all played a lot of cricket now, and everyone came back with the feedback that they would probably feel more benefit out of getting more volume in the nets and working on skills."
What we know of Stokes as captain, and the ethos instilled by him and head coach Brendon McCullum, could never have been more distilled. Convention bordering on politeness would have meant bringing the game to a conclusion. But why not do what you need to do, instead of what others think you should? There was even talk that the management might ask the ground-staff to scuff up the pitch in the morning for a day's worth of training against spin, to prepare for the possibility of encountering a similar surface deep into one of the upcoming Tests in Rawalpindi, Multan or Karachi.
Stokes' first visit on the middle came during Friday's ad-hoc practice, where he bowled a few overs alongside Jofra Archer - who gave Ben Duckett a torrid time ahead of returning home to the UK - before batting. Stokes himself had played no part in the match, instead watching on from the sidelines between net sessions, massages and a few long, gruelling sessions on a stationary bike in 30-degree heat. He was suitably impressed by what he saw.
"That first day, obviously the scorecard looks ridiculous," he said. "But I think looking at it finer than that, you look at the way Zak and Ducky applied themselves early on with the new ball, when it was actually doing a bit, but still looked to put the pressure back on them whenever they could. Then we got into a position of about 300, 350 - the way Livi and Will Jacks went out and played is exactly what we're on about when we get into those positions, especially out here in the subcontinent, rather than simply letting the game flow and not taking anything on really.
"With the ball, it's an incredibly flat wicket, so it was a good opportunity for the lads to be out of their comfort zone when you've got lads coming hard at you. I think two spells into the bowlers, a day in the dirt, that's exactly what we want when we've got a big tour coming up."
Stokes also made special mention of Haseeb Hameed, who scored 145 for the Lions against a strong attack featuring James Anderson, Ollie Robinson, Jamie Overton and Jack Leach. He produced 20 fours, two sixes and plenty of intent that pleased Stokes - including the fact that Hameed had sought out conversations with director of men's cricket Rob Key and McCullum.
"He [Hameed] played incredibly well yesterday," Stokes said. "He's someone you wouldn't necessarily have down for that type of innings, but me and Baz were watching him play.
"He has had conversations with Rob and Baz about what he needs to do to get back in the team, and he's obviously listened. It's amazing to see a player like Hass, who has done what he's done over five or six years, has realised the potential that he can play that way, against our front-line attack. I think it's amazing to see what messaging, when it's clear and precise, can do for a player. it's great to see that filtering down to the Lions group here.
"They were told when they came to the camp, the way in which we operate. Hass can take a lot of credit, he's listened to the conversation about how to get into the team, and is actually implementing it. It wasn't just yesterday, he did it throughout the summer."
This hasn't been your usual training week. It began with a visit to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix for qualifying and race day last weekend, an excursion set up by Stokes via his Red Bull connections. Golf has featured regularly - of course - and the vibe throughout training has been kept constant by McCullum's wireless speakers. The Kiwi even called in contacts at Kolkata Knight Riders to secure the luxurious Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Ahead of restricted movements in Pakistan due to the level of security, this week has been about enjoyment and, by proxy, reinforcing the freedom England cracked so well in the summer to win six out of seven Tests. Over that period, there has been a lot of outward talk about messaging and buy-in from players. Internally, however, there has not been as much direct supplementation, as there was at Lord's ahead of the South Africa series when Stokes felt compelled to pull out a whiteboard to reaffirm the team's principles. This time, no such aids were required.
"It is important to keep making those points, but not by sitting down for 45 minutes and having those types of talk," he said. "It's just real quick and repetitive, but the conversations haven't changed at all. It's very clear in the way me and Brendon talk to the team, and especially the first day here, it was pretty obvious that the lads are still very much on that path. It makes the new lads feel at ease when the conversations are still as clear as they were six months ago. Especially Will Jacks and Liam Livingstone, that's the way they want to play their cricket. It's great having guys like that in the squad. It's great to watch."
There is a palpable sense of excitement about the visit to Pakistan, even if they'd prefer a little more freedom. Some players are looking to take cues from Australia's successful tour to the country earlier this year, among them opener Zak Crawley who spoke in the week about watching the series back and noting how well openers on both sides performed. Others, like Stokes, are wary of putting too much stock in thinking conditions will be identical.
"We are not reading too much into the Australia-Pakistan series, because we don't know it'll be like that," he said. "If we get there and it looks dry, it might spin. We have heard some comms that it might be green, nippy wickets. We need all bases covered, and to wait and see."
Whatever is laid out in front of them, he believes his England squad has shown over the summer just how malleable they can be.
"As the summer went on, we learnt to adapt to different situations," he added. "First and foremost, we have in the front of our mind the conversations we have had and the way we want to play our cricket. What we will go to Pakistan with is that mindset of knowing we will need to absorb pressure but if, at any given time, we feel the time is right to pounce and put pressure on the opposition, we will still do that. It's obviously going to be different conditions and situations, but first and foremost the way we play, the team ethos, how we play with the bat and attack with the ball won't change. As time progresses we will see adaptation of that."
Best of all, this trip, along with the seven-match T20I tour in September and October, will go some way to earning back trust after England's no-show of 2021. There were fears of a similar about-turn at the start of the month when Imran Khan was wounded in the leg after being shot during a protest march in Wazirabad. But minds are at ease thanks to feedback since the incident, and the scale of what England are about to embark on - a first Test tour of Pakistan since 2005 - is not lost on the team or its captain.
"It's been a long time since England have played Test cricket in Pakistan," Stokes said. "With what happened with Imran Khan recently, there was a little bit of concern, but we have Reg Dickason, who has been the security man for many years with England, and we left it in his capable hands. He went out and said everything could continue as planned. Having that man feed you that information back puts everyone's mind at ease - players and support staff.
"In terms of the tour itself, I'm really looking forward to it," Stokes added. "I've never been there, and I'm quite interested to see what the security lark is like. I've heard it's pretty intense. With the cricket, I'm really looking forward to it. We know what the subcontinent feels about the cricket, it's a huge part of their life, and we're looking forward to going out there."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo