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Analysis

Ben Stokes charges up his learning curve as England Test captain

No fancy tactics, big runs are what's needed as England face hefty first-innings pursuit

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
11-Jun-2022
Ben Stokes runs off as the rain comes down  •  Getty Images

Ben Stokes runs off as the rain comes down  •  Getty Images

First, the good news. England hustled out the last five New Zealand wickets for 57 runs, conjuring the sort of fightback that their bowling coach, Jon Lewis, had hinted was possible after a footslogging (and self-inflicted) first day in the field at Trent Bridge. James Anderson and Stuart Broad were to the fore, as the Trent Bridge crowd engaged in a few lusty choruses of support.
The bad news was that this belated display of incision came more than halfway through day two, as Daryl Mitchell's teak-tough 190 set the tourists up for their highest-ever Test total in England.
"They say Rome wasn't built in a day, but I wasn't on that particular job." Brian Clough, the former Nottingham Forest manager whose statue can be found off the old market square in the city centre, was a man who knew plenty about winning - as well as providing memorable lines. He also had a soft spot for cricket, occasionally making the short trip across from Forest's City Ground to watch a game at Trent Bridge.
Brendon McCullum, at least these days, cuts a humbler figure with his public pronouncements, but he will be starting to get a clearer picture of the "particular job" in front of him. McCullum will have known that England's Test fortunes would not be completely rebuilt over the course of their three-and-a-bit day win at Lord's. But to put it in football parlance, the new-manager bounce has already worn off.
Lewis had referenced McCullum's "positive, upbeat" approach when asked how he would try to rally his troops. Doubtless the mood in the dressing room will have remained calm and relaxed, even as New Zealand cruised towards 500 still only five down - far removed from the more colourful approach to man-management preferred by Clough, who used everything from alcohol to physical confrontation to motivate his players.
The fiery stuff may well come from Ben Stokes, who continued to charge up his learning curve as England Test captain. If he could console himself on the first day that his decision to insert New Zealand might not have backfired had his players held on to the chances that came their way, the problem on a blustery Saturday was where the opportunities were going to come from. When Mitchell did make a misjudgement during the morning session, lofting a straightforward catch to long-on, Matthew Potts produced the worst drop of England's lengthy effort in the field.
After the chaos of Lord's, where Stokes was largely able to react to events unfolding at pace - other than during the partnership between Mitchell and Tom Blundell - here the onus was on his ability to pull the strings. "This is when he'll start to find out about captaincy," observed Graeme Swann on Sky's commentary. And it was also where we started to find out how Stokes will tackle the challenge.
Certainly, it was no surprise to see him launch into a lengthy spell with the ball - as he has done before in Colombo, Cape Town and Headingley - in an effort to turn things around single-handedly. That, too, despite concerns about his fitness in the build-up. Stokes was fifth into the attack, with England beginning to get desperate in their attempts to break another hefty Mitchell-Blundell stand, but again demonstrated his skill as a swing bowler, rather than battering ram, as well as that famed physical stamina.
When the wicket did fall, it was Stokes with the catch at mid-off. The next man in, Michael Bracewell, then survived several close calls as Stokes settled into his work during an 11-over stint either side of lunch. Pragmatism had by now resulted in a cover sweeper being deployed for Mitchell, but when he nevertheless stepped out to crunch Stokes for four, there was a kick at the turf from the frustrated bowler.
Another substantial partnership ensued, but England regrouped following a delay for rain. Following initial four-over bursts, Anderson and Broad had been left to their devices in the outfield - their energies largely devoted to England's many unsuccessful attempts to get the ball changed. Maybe they could have been turned to sooner. But having switched back to the Pavilion End, Anderson successfully preyed on Bracewell's nerves as he approached fifty, ten dots balls to the debutant followed by an anguished prod to slip.
Stokes had begun the day in the cordon, while Joe Root was off the field. But with Potts now deployed on the bumper duty - a role Stokes himself had performed at Lord's - the captain took up station at deep midwicket. During the right-hand, left-hand partnership between Mitchell and Bracewell, Stokes' commitment to the role extended to jogging all the way from one side of the ground across to the other.
As Broad returned with a two-wicket burst and England began to sense that an end to their toil was near, Stokes could be seen leaning over the boundary to sign autographs between deliveries, content that his players knew what was required. Clearly being all things to English cricket isn't too weighty a burden yet.
For a man as competitive as Stokes, there doubtless will be plenty to pick apart in the debrief. Only twice has a team inserted by England made a higher first-innings total; even Nasser Hussain's infamous Brisbane call resulted in Australia being dismissed for fewer than 500. But an encouraging start with the bat - aided by New Zealand dropping a couple of chances in return - will aid his sleep tonight. No fancy tactics, big runs are what's needed. Even Old Big 'Ead could tell you that.

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick