Matches (13)
SA v IND (1)
ZIM v IRE (1)
IND v ENG (W) (1)
Asia Cup [U19] (4)
BBL 2023 (2)
Hazare Trophy (4)

When cricket improved England's national mood: in 1981, 2005, and now 2022

Ben Stokes' team has brought cheer to Britons, just like Ian Botham's and Michael Vaughan's did in the past

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Our place in the sun: after a terrible winter, where they lost series in Australia and the West Indies, a renewed England won six of their seven Tests in the home summer  •  Clive Rose/Getty Images

Our place in the sun: after a terrible winter, where they lost series in Australia and the West Indies, a renewed England won six of their seven Tests in the home summer  •  Clive Rose/Getty Images

At a classy dinner ten days ago in honour of Eoin Morgan and for the charities with which he has aligned, Ben Stokes was asked about his pride in the staggering achievements of the summer. "Just to see the full houses and hear that people couldn't take their eyes off the television screen does it for me," he said, "That's what it's all about, entertaining the people who love the game and hoping that others who might not, change their mind, because of the way we have played."
Not for the first time, England's cricket had proved cathartic. Stokes' team lit up the summer, winning six out seven Tests in such style it was as if a new golden age was born. Given that a grim winter abroad had led to post-Ashes depression and that defeat in the Caribbean had further exaggerated the malaise, this was a monumental achievement - up there with any from all time.
On reflection now, 1981 was a year of extraordinary political and cultural change: a seminal time in the evolution of modern Britain. Tradition was overtaken by the consumer's free market ambition, while the speed of technological change marked the beginning of a new age. Initially, Margaret Thatcher's austerity-driven government faced a frightening, anarchic tension on the streets as riots broke out in Brixton, South London, and wound their way up the country to Toxteth in Liverpool. It took Botham's Ashes, as the series became known - along with the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer - to lift spirits and create a sense of pride in a country otherwise torn apart.
Botham's version of modernism: his carefree, rebellious approach to a game run by old-school whispers in old-school corridors, made for compelling viewing. Off the field, the longer he grew his hair and toyed with the ways of rock 'n roll, the more the people embraced him: on the field the harder he hit the ball and the more he swung it when he bowled, the louder they cheered. This sense of optimism moved the dial. Such is the power of sport, and in particular, of the Pied Piper effect created by Botham. Suddenly, even the government's tactics began to make sense. Austerity soon became prosperity as a kind of economic liberalisation allowed markets to fly and entrepreneurship to thrive.
In 2005, the capital's streets were once again the target for extremist fury. On July 7, a series of suicide attacks by terrorists targeted London's public transport system. Apart from the bombers, 52 others died and more than 700 were injured. And yet, on July 21 - a day of further attacks - the bulldog spirit ensured that Lord's was bursting at its seams for the first Test in perhaps the greatest Ashes series of them all.
Michael Vaughan's England threw all they had at the Australians over those hugely atmospheric days, but it wasn't enough. Typically and ruthlessly, the old enemy cut into England's heart and threw it to the wind. Lesser, weaker, sides would have been unable to cope but Vaughan was not for turning in his belief that Ricky Ponting's fine team could be beaten and across the five weeks that followed Lord's, England played to their potential and ensured the Australians did not quite reach theirs. Match after match felt like the heavyweight fight it was, and on each occasion a full 15 rounds were needed to decide an outcome. Andrew Flintoff became the Botham of the day, and with him, a magnificent fast-bowling attack and some thrilling batting brought the Ashes "home" for the first time since Mike Gatting's travelling band had done the same in Australia 18 years earlier.
On the back of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, 2022 has been a dreadful year in the United Kingdom, so much so that there is no immediate sign of respite from unpredictable government, hard recession, the frightening cost of living, an energy crisis, rail strikes and airline chaos. Most recently there has been the death of the Queen. The cricketers, however, have made the country proud, allowing us to smile about our game again. From Bairstow to Broad; Root to Anderson and Stokes to Robinson, it has been a summer of comic-book hero stuff, with scripts written by fantasists and acted out by players liberated from the fear of failure. The six Test matches won came from batting second, and therefore last, with each having a narrative that was often fraught and always tense. When it was over, Joe Root said he had never had so much fun playing professional cricket - lucky Joe, a second life in the age of innocence.
It has been riveting to watch the swapping of roles by Root and Stokes. Through the former captain's darkest days as England captain, his mate had his back, never once wavering from generous comment and unconditional support. Of course, Root's days were not always dark. Indeed, the brightest of them were splendid affairs, not least when Virat Kohli's strong India team were beaten 4-1 in 2018. Most of England's cricket in that series sparkled and the selection of allrounders who each offered a variant on the "total cricket" theme brought new light through old windows.
Stokes has seen this summer's movie before. In fact, he has produced, directed and starred in a few of them. His mantra to play to win - to risk defeat in pursuit of victory, whatever the odds - is not new to him, only to everyone else
The following summer, in 2019, Stokes then took the support of his captain to an altogether new level with a solo performance at Headingley against the Australians that ranks with any in the history of the game. Root simply couldn't get the ball out of his hand in the second innings when, knee injury and all, Stokes pounded in for 24.2 overs to take 3 for 56, thus denying the Australians the oxygen of quick runs towards an unassailable lead.
After which, came the innings: the unbeaten 135 of which Don Bradman or Viv Richards, never mind Ian Botham, would have been greatly proud. Two days after being bowled out for 67, England recorded their highest ever successful chase - 359 was the target - with Stokes front and centre of what, even at the time, felt more like a piece of fiction than reality. He hit 11 fours and eight sixes, many of which came as he finessed at 76-run partnership for the last wicket with Jack Leach.
You might have picked up where this is going. Stokes has seen this summer's movie before. In fact, he has produced, directed and starred in a few of them. His mantra to play to win - to risk defeat in pursuit of victory, whatever the odds - is not new to him, only to everyone else.
To wind back the clock one more time, let us revive the Lord's Test against India last summer. There was something profoundly irritating about the way in which England lay down against Kohli's team, who, naturally enough, were hellbent on revenge for 2018. Thanks primarily to Anderson and Root, England controlled the game right up until the fall of Rishabh Pant's wicket on the fifth morning: the point at which India, on a decent batting pitch, were just 167 ahead with only three wickets left in the shed. The excited buzz around Lord's was silenced by the misguided short-pitched attack against the tail that allowed Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah to swat and swipe their way to a partnership 89 that brought Kohli's declaration and, ultimately, England's demise. Pusillanimous batting in the face of a suddenly visceral and rather brilliant opponent saw England collapse to 120 all out and defeat by 151. To this observer, it was the first sign that Root had lost his captaincy mojo; in short, the end of one management team and the need for another was clear. England needed to strip it back; to find a simpler, brighter version of the game.
Stokes, meanwhile, was on a six-month sabbatical. Almost certainly, he will have cringed at what he saw. He had never sought the captaincy and, even if deep down he aspired to it, would under no circumstance "white-ant" his mate to get it. But he was watching and thinking. Australia last winter, and the West Indies tour that followed, was the nadir for Root, the point at which the strain outweighed the privilege. After his resignation, Stokes telephoned Rob Key to say he was up for it. The rest is history.
No one has been tighter to Stokes than Root. It is to his eternal credit that Stokes can speak so highly of the man he replaced and of his methods. For Root to say this is the most fun he has had playing professional cricket is to agree, in part, that what went immediately before was not much fun.
In the first half of the summer, released from the traffic of captaincy, he batted perhaps better than any Englishman has batted before - Stokes at Headingley excepted - expanding his game to something more expressive and theatrical than seen previously. Those runs were to dry up in the second half of the summer because, in the end, the amount of cricket played by these fellows will take its toll. When we next see Root at the wicket for England, there may be more of the pragmatist in him than the showman. Runs are the currency of the greats and Root knows that such a moniker is in his gift.
If selecting the best England side from the players I have seen live - so we start, say, with Ted Dexter and John Snow and go through to the present day - both Root and Stokes would be in it. Should Stokes carry on like this, he will be appointed captain of this XI too.
Test cricket's power to heal, its unique quality to occupy up to five days and bleed messages of ebb and flow, patience and reward, hype and humdrum, drama, delight, victory and defeat is not to be underestimated. If ever I saw cricket improve the national mood, it was in the summers of 1981, 2005 and 2022. Those who threaten the primacy of Test cricket know not what they are doing. We will not forgive them if they succeed. Thank you then, to Stokes and his merry men for making this loud and clear.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator