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Match Analysis

England's vibes of revival land their greatest glory yet

From Grand Prixs to viruses, via funky bowling and Nighthawks, how England overcame history in Pakistan

England's Test squad attend the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix during their build-up to the tour of Pakistan  •  Getty Images

England's Test squad attend the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix during their build-up to the tour of Pakistan  •  Getty Images

During the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last month, Ben Stokes was leading his Test squad on a walk through the paddock.
They had convened only a few days before, arriving from different corners of the globe. Stokes, Liam Livingstone and Paul Collingwood arrived from the successful T20 World Cup, via a brief jolly in Dubai. James Anderson, Ollie Robinson, Jack Leach, Will Jacks and Jamie Overton had been training with the Lions out in the UAE since the start of November. The rest, barring Harry Brook and Mark Wood who were given time-off after the World Cup, came in from the UK.
The premise of the camp was straightforward: top up the camaraderie established over the summer and enjoy freedom ahead of the constraints that come with a high-security visit of Pakistan, all around a few net sessions ahead of a three-day match against the Lions at the Zayed Cricket Complex. But with plenty of cricket to come in the form of three back-to-back Tests, the onus at the start of this trip was on vibes and relaxation.
Brendon McCullum had pulled a few strings with his contacts at Kolkata Knight Riders to get the team in at the plush Ritz Carlton Hotel. In turn, Stokes called in a few favours with his sponsors Red Bull for all-access passes for the whole squad to take in the sights and sounds of Formula 1.
As they walked along, recognising faces from Drive To Survive, bumping into global superstars from Hollywood and music, occasionally plucking up the courage to ask for a selfie, Stokes was collared by an elderly, enthusiastic fan dressed in matching tartan flat cap, trousers and facemask. Confused at the manner in which the gentleman was fawning over him in an environment where everyone was playing it cool, Stokes obliged the compliments on his captaincy, his talents as a cricketer and good wishes for the challenge that lay ahead, all while his hand was being squeezed tighter and tighter.
Eventually, the man was moved on, tailed by a few others. "Do you know who that was?" asked a voice from behind Stokes. "Not a clue". It was Jackie Stewart, one of the godfathers of motor racing.
That Stokes did not recognise Stewart is less important than the fact Stewart recognised him. While the rest of the England team were holding back their excitement at the celebrities they were rubbing shoulders with, Stokes was the sole cricketer as a celeb in his own right. It helped that he had just come off the back of securing England the T20 World Cup in Australia, another high-profile success. But even before that, and indeed before assuming the Test captaincy and bringing the house down over the summer with some of the most stunning results in England's history, Stokes was a person of interest.
It's an important factor when assessing how we are where we are right now, off the back of three more remarkable wins that sees England victorious in Pakistan. They have won nine wins out of 10, off the back of just 1 in 17, and you don't need to mine Statsguru to know that that has never been done before.
Stokes' legend has been self-made, for better and worse, and that is all the more reason why he has excelled as a leader. People are always going to notice him, talk about him, judge him. Those aspects have weighted heavily and eventually drowned Test captains in the past. Including his best mate, Joe Root, who became so overwhelmed after five years in the job that he would often be reluctant to go on the family school run, in case judgemental chatter about him at the gates filtered into the classroom.
So thick is Stokes' skin, and so bad the results before his tenure, last summer was - in essence - a free-hit. Things could not get worse but, importantly, they could get more fun. Having stripped away the pomp, circumstance and pressure, he placed himself in front of the team as a shield to the usual criticisms, and in turn allowed them to thrive. In the UAE, he broke off a piece of his fame and handed it around. Players and support staff enjoyed a few high-profile gigs, including Kendrick Lamar, and a couple of boat parties. By the time they arrived in Pakistan, not only were they ready to get down to business, they were more together than ever. Just as well given the circumstances leading up to the first match of the series.

****

No one really knew where the virus had come from. There were suggestions that it might have been brought from the UK by those with young children, maybe even Covid-19, but both were ruled out. Food poisoning, which affected the white-ball squad during their T20I series in Pakistan a couple of months earlier, was regarded as unlikely given the ECB felt they had mitigated for those issues by bringing over their own chef. He, too, fell ill.
What they did know was they needed to rally around those affected, particularly as it meant dipping back into pandemic cricket - confined to their rooms to restrict any spread. Staff and players checked in on one another regularly, initially dropping snacks from home at doors to lighten the mood, before even that contact came under suspicion.
As the game approached and talk of a delay came to pass if England could not raise an XI on the scheduled first morning, players began geeing each other up in the hope that raised spirits could be a remedy. That indeed proved to be the case.
Some of those struck down, such as Ben Duckett, reiterated to the management group that he would play regardless, given his opportunity to rekindle a Test career that had been chopped down prematurely off the back of four caps at the end of 2016. Others needed a bit more encouragement.
Stokes made a note of visiting Jack Leach, his go-to spinner throughout his tenure, in a bid to urge him to play. Leach, who suffers from Crohn's, was affected badly and initially floated the idea of not playing because he did not want to let the side down if selected in the XI. His captain reiterated that he would look after him. The left-arm spinner would end up taking the final wicket in Rawalpindi and thanked Stokes publicly for twisting his arm.
Even for the third Test, Ollie Robinson dismissed his own struggles when pulling McCullum off to one side and pretty much telling him he was playing. "I was pretty crook the first day, but I said to Baz I really wanted to play to prove a point to everyone here, and back home, that I can play three Test matches [in a row]." McCullum appreciated the sentiment and, above all else, respected the desire to finish strong. No other seamer played all three Tests, and none of them bowled more than Robinson's 77 overs, which eventually secured him nine wickets at 21.22.
Ben Foakes, however, could not pull through for the opener in Rawalpindi. He was afforded a morning fitness test but to no avail. As a result, Ollie Pope stood in to take the gloves and another Surrey team-mate, Will Jacks, made his Test debut. Within the first half of the match, Pope had scored a first-day century and completed two catches and a stumping.
There was no resentment between friends, with Foakes wishing him well then assuming a role in Pope's keeping practice ahead of the second Test in Multan when it was decided to retain him behind the stumps. Foakes even had to lend Pope his gloves because the resident No. 3 didn't think to bring his along. Foakes joked that Pope should keep them before he assumed them once more for the third Test.
As the series wore on, more players assumed ad-hoc coaching positions when staff were struck down. Keaton Jennings, who didn't start a game but saw plenty of action as a substitute fielder, was regularly throwing balls. And at one point in the lead-up to the Multan Test, James Anderson was hitting high catches.
Returning to Pakistan after 17 years, having been a non-playing member of the last England Test squad to tour in 2005, he added another section to his CV. His eight wickets came at 18.50, most remarkably his 4 for 36 in the final innings of the first Test, in which he bowled 22 overs on day five. He has also operated as a bowling coach with England not travelling with one after Jon Lewis, now head coach of England Women, was let go at the end of the summer.
The best players don't always make the best coaches. But Anderson's work with all the bowlers, most notably Robinson and Mark Wood around reverse swing, has been vital. Even with 177 Tests and 675 dismissals, his information has been accessible and continuous without being overbearing. Indeed, he was so relaxed that many did not even regard him as a bowling coach, as such. If Anderson has something to say about the subject, you take it on regardless of his official or unofficial role.
Much of this trip was about trying new things. There was very little reliable intel on the pitches, with only Australia's series earlier this year to go on. As it happened, the surfaces mimicked how they had been nine months earlier: flat, sapping and hardly conducive to engaging cricket.
England, however, brought their own enthusiasm, trying many different things. At another time, opening the second innings of the final Test with the spin of Leach and Joe Root might have been regarded as innovation bordering on madness. But by then England had already opened the second innings of the first match with an exclusive diet of bumpers, had as many as two catching covers and two catching midwickets in unison and even had long passages of pressure without anyone in the cordon. In fact, of the 26 wickets to England seamers, not one was caught by a regulation off-side slip fielder.
"It was strange at the start, bowling without slips," Robinson reflected. "It's the first time I've done it in my career, I think. I have learned a lot and adapted to conditions as best as I can, in that sense. I've learned a lot about myself and what I'm capable of.
"Stokesy kept saying to me, 'just carry on bowling the way you're bowling, don't worry about the field'. He keeps moving it, trying to adjust it for the batters. It was tough at times but you just crack on."
Crack on they did, fuelled by endless amounts of encouragement. At another time, an England team might have bitched and moaned, called foul and given up altogether. That's not how this side operates. When it looked like the Pindi surface was going to get the better of them, the mantra bellowed by Stokes was "enjoy the flatness". So they did - more so than any side visiting Pakistan, English or otherwise, has ever enjoyed before.

****

"I think it's put a lot of perspective on it for all of us, seeing an 18-year-old coming in and play like he's in the backyard."
Pope is only 24, not long from those backyard days. Yet Rehan Ahmed provided him and the rest of the playing group with a reminder of what this was all suppose to be about - fun.
Even though that is a key tenet of this new era, the injection of Rehan's youthful exuberance helped end the tour on a perfect note. It wasn't simply that, having become England's youngest Test debutant, he went on to be the youngest man in the history of the format to take a five-wicket haul ok debut. The little details proved captivating too, as the team was exposed to his unfiltered love of the game, from the way he walked around hotels with a ball in his hand, right down to shadow-batting with the stump he got given as a memento of Karachi while the post-series presentations were dragging on.
The assimilation of Rehan, from a hushed pick back in October to his embedding in the squad for the last month perhaps best encapsulates the environment at the moment. He is the youngest by five years and, in terms of cricket, far less travelled than the rest with only three first-class matches to his name and only an Under-19 World Cup under his belt in terms of touring experience. Like most teenagers, he's fond of hanging out in his room, whittling hours away on YouTube, mostly watching cricket with a bit of boxing and UFC mixed in. He is also a practising Muslim.
That last part may not seem an issue of note. But within a group whose downtime and celebration often includes alcohol, it was something to consider.
Throughout this tour, team-mates have been sensitive to his religion, ensuring gatherings did not revolve too much around booze to make him feel comfortable. They also brushed up on prayer times, making sure he was able to embrace his usual routines. While we can file all of that simply under "common decency", it is not something that should be taken for granted.
Another aspect is the communication with Rehan's family, which began in earnest when he was called up to the Lions. They had been kept abreast of the plan to "soft launch" him into the Test side. His father Naeem, who has been out in Pakistan, was made to feel part of the touring party. When Nasser Hussain presented Rehan with his maiden cap - number 710 - Naeem was invited into the circle to be there for the moment.
Many within the squad were struck by the occasion. The overriding sentiment was of being reminded of their first moments at this level and how integral parents are in getting you to that moment. In Stokes, he has a captain who knows full well the importance of family.
Both he and McCullum have made sure to keep tabs on Rehan, especially when he was restricted to the odd cameo as sub-fielder during the first two Tests. They were able to impress upon him that he was here on merit and that, when an opportunity came, he would simply have to be himself. Nevertheless, Rehan wanted to make as good an impression as possible off the field, too. That largely went well, with players struck more and more by an infectious personality. Though he did take it too far when he made an effort to be more presentable and ended up burning his training shorts while attempting to iron out a few creases.
The growth in Rehan's confidence manifested itself in the second innings for the dismissal of Saud Shakeel - the third of his haul of 5 for 48. Feeling in the groove, he decided to take control of his own field and went to Stokes with a plan of his own.
"The Saud wicket, for example," Stokes said. "He [Rehan] was the one who brought up the deep square for the sweep, because he said if he top-edges it, it's going to go straight to him. And then two balls later, it did. For an 18-year-old to come into his first Test match and have such a cricket-savvy brain, especially under Test-match pressure, was really good for us." So enamored were the squad with his performance - on and off the field - they insisted he be front and centre for the photo with the series trophy.
Players like Harry Brook and Duckett also benefitted from the welcoming environment to finish as No. 1 and 2 on the run-scoring charts. While 23 and 28 respectively, both are early in their Test careers but were still comfortable enough to riff on their own, innate joie de vivre.
For Duckett in particular, the tour has been a second chance at a childhood dream: to become a Test cricketer and then register a Test century, as he did at the first time of asking on his second coming. Best of all, the left-hander played throughout like the 22-year-old who first earned a call-up in 2016. A chastening experience in India - the last two of four caps he had coming into this series - ended up rattling him for a few years after. Having rediscovered his funk, he has been able to take it to the next level thanks to an ethos that aligns perfectly with his.
"I've got the same shots now I had six years ago," he said on Tuesday. "The one game in Bangladesh six years ago when I got 60 [56] is exactly how I played in this. Looking back, I wish I had done it every game but, back then, it was not really the way to play Test cricket.
"Right now, I don't think Stokesy cares what you do to get runs, whether that means scooping [Tim] Southee in New Zealand [in February]. For me that mindset allows me to score runs and makes me my best. If I'm looking to survive then to be honest I'm pretty useless. My way of surviving is to put the bowlers under pressure and look to score."

****

The heavy security detail in Pakistan meant outside entertainment was minimal for England. Beyond a few golf days, most of the fun had to be had among themselves.
On the morning before the final Test, they decided to have a six-hitting competition between the squad, with teams split into North and South. Then came a battle between coach and captain. Coach won. As a result, Stokes had to serve the best on show for the North their dinner that evening, which happened to be Brook. The initial deal was for the loser to serve the victor, but McCullum figured this would be funnier. It certainly proved to be when Brook went on to run Stokes out later in the match.
It may seem like hijinks, but the logic to the competition came from Stokes' experience of long tours. Did they need another practice session after back-to-back Tests? Probably not. Could they do with a bit of a laugh to lift their energy levels? Always.
Then came the penultimate session of the tour on the third evening, which might rank as one of the strangest / most hilarious under Stokes and McCullum. When Zak Crawley was dismissed for 41 after putting on 87 with Duckett in pursuit of a target of 167, Rehan strolled out to bat as the first sighting of the legendary "Nighthawk" role originally earmarked for Stuart Broad.
The youngster was under strict instructions to finish the game, and smacked his first ball down the ground for four. While that absurdity played out, something even more ridiculous was taking place inside the dressing-room. As Pope put it on Tuesday morning, "Stokesy was on a bit of a mad one."
For some reason, the captain decided he wanted a few more rogue options to throw into the mix if another wicket went down. According to Pope, "a load of us" were padded up, including him, having been bumped down from his usual No. 3 spot. Then, on a whim, Stokes, one of the few not padded up, decided he wanted a piece of the action.
He lasted the course, though his last act was to cloth a strike down the ground for two. He was trying to clear the fence and move ahead of McCullum with the pair currently joint top for most sixes hit in a Test career on 107.
Stokes later admitted that, perhaps, he was taking things too far. "I was all over the shop last night, trying to finish it," he said, of his thinking and then his batting, which eventually saw him unbeaten on 35 from 43. As for his botched attempt to clear the ropes at the end, he conceded there was a little selfishness: "I've had a small man on my shoulder for a while called Brendon McCullum."

****

On Tuesday evening, the squad convened for a team meeting at the sports bar in the Movenpick Hotel which has been their team room in Karachi. There were congratulations, a bit of a debrief, a "Happy Birthday" to team analyst Rupert Lewis and then farewells to 13 of the 16 squad members who were able to book early flights home.
Given how this team have worked hard for what they achieved in Pakistan, and how they have closed out an exceptional seven months of Test cricket, it all seemed a bit flat. Surely an achievement deserves savouring and a celebration to match.
But as bags were packed and shuffled into the foyer, there was a clear sense that their work here was done and it was time to head home. Among all the outward revelry of this England Test side, there is a thick streak of professionalism running through them. A backbone that supports everything that they have done.
The bonds between this group are clear, the ethos a little deeper in stone. They leave Pakistan not wishing the good times could last for a little longer, but knowing there are more good times to come.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo