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Brendon McCullum puts faith in CSK to keep Ben Stokes' Ashes ambitions on track

'The Ashes is the script that the skipper is waiting to write, so he'll be sweet'

Brendon McCullum has backed Ben Stokes' decision to go to the IPL in spite of his knee injury, New Zealand vs England, 2nd Test, Wellington, 5th day, February 28, 2023

Brendon McCullum has backed Ben Stokes' decision to go to the IPL in spite of his knee injury  •  Getty Images

Brendon McCullum is confident that Ben Stokes' involvement in the Indian Premier League will not jeopardise his participation in the Ashes this summer.
Stokes, England's Test captain, has found himself in the middle of a franchise versus country dilemma: insistent on fulfilling his £1.6million contract for Chennai Super Kings despite a left knee that requires constant management and rest ahead of the 2023 English season.
The issue has progressively worsened over the winter to such an extent that Stokes was only able to bowl two overs in the match and struggled to bat with freedom in the thrilling second Test against New Zealand, in which the hosts triumphed by one run to square the two-match series. Speaking at the end of the match at the Basin Reserve, he admitted to finding it "very frustrating" that he could not play a full part, particularly as the fourth seamer, but quashed the idea he would turn his back on the IPL.
last week, Stokes floated the possibility of leaving the competition early (which runs from March 31 to May 28) to ensure he is ready for the first Test of the summer against Ireland at Lord's on June 1, though only if he feels he needs a bigger lead-in. McCullum, as Test coach, has no doubts the 31-year-old will be right for the summer, not just because he has full faith in the CSK set-up, which he was a part of for two seasons, but also as he is aware how much a series against Australia means to his skipper.
"I don't think he's jeopardising it," McCullum said. "The Chennai set-up is excellent in looking after their players and they've a very good medical team and he will be well looked after. The skipper has a strong mind and he knows how to get right for the big moments. His life is that, right? So I don't have any concerns. In fact I look forward to watching him play in it and see, without captaincy as well, the opportunity to play cricket without worrying about everybody else, knowing when he comes back into the fold and leads us into the Ashes campaign he'll have the bit between his teeth and I think we'll be alright.
"He sees the big picture in everything, so I've no concerns that the skipper will be totally looked after. And I also believe that the Ashes is the script that the skipper is waiting to write, so he'll be sweet."
Also putting McCullum's mind at ease is the presence of his good friend Stephen Fleming in the CSK dugout. Fleming, who was McCullum's first international captain, has been in charge of the franchise since 2009, and has been in New Zealand throughout this series. He's been in constant communication with Stokes regarding his fitness and other plans, and it is understood Stokes has been sounded out for a leadership role at CSK, potentially as part of a succession plan for MS Dhoni.
"I've got a tee-time with him [Fleming] tomorrow [Wednesday] afternoon," McCullum said. "So I'll be talking to him and making sure he looks after the skipper, but I know that Chennai set-up actually. I played in that franchise and they're very good. They've got a good team and an outstanding leader in Flem."
Up until now, McCullum has been reluctant to discuss the Ashes, often joking it is an unhealthy English obsession. However, with the series just three months away, he acknowledges excitement at seeing how a group that have won 10 Tests out of 12 take on such bitter rivals. England last won the Ashes in 2015 and the feeling as they come out of the winter is of quiet optimism they can reclaim it.
"I hadn't thought about the Ashes, to be honest. I know everyone talks about it and obviously you're going to be judged on your performance in the Ashes as well.
"But now I'm starting to go 'the next series is the Ashes; that's pretty cool'. I think this team has grown over the last eight or nine months. I think it's become more at ease with how we're playing, and it's become more authentic as well. And I think it certainly does give ourselves the best chance of being able to topple a good Australian side. We know it's not going to be easy, but I'm pretty sure that we will play a very similar style of cricket that we've played throughout the last eight or nine months. And with eight or nine months of development of that style under our belt, we should be hard to beat.
"Now we can really get excited about it, I think we've tried to to live in the moment rather than look too far ahead and make sure that we're really present with what we're doing. Now we have the opportunity to really start to plot and plan, and turn our attention to what's going to be a pretty amazing time in the guys' lives: an Ashes series at home against a good Australian side. So I think we'll go into it with a lot of confidence. We know they're a good side. We'll work out who wins."
As for the first XI at Edgbaston come June 16, that is hard to predict. McCullum has come out of the winter with better knowledge on all 16 players used across Pakistan and New Zealand, along with those who were part of squads but didn't see any action. His pool of players is set to grow further, too, with Jonny Bairstow returning from breaking his leg, along with bowling options such as Jofra Archer, Chris Woakes and Sam Curran working back into red-ball contention through white-ball work.
Bairstow is the most intriguing of the lot. He was the poster boy of the 2022 summer, with four hundreds in the first five matches under Stokes and McCullum before a freak slip on the golf course ruled him out of the Oval Test against South Africa. His replacement, Harry Brook, has gone on to take the world by storm, with four centuries across five matches this winter, giving him a batting average of 80.90 and a strike rate of 98.77.
Though there is no guarantee Bairstow will pick up his form where he left off, provided his rehab goes as hoped it is likely he will return to the XI. Much of the conjecture over the last few months has been about whether it would be to replace Ben Foakes (and in turn take the gloves) or Zak Crawley, who averaged just 29.30 over the winter despite starting a run of 10 innings with scores of 122 and 50.
However McCullum said he would avoid shoehorning players into unfamiliar roles for the sake of it. In turn he championed Foakes, who almost won England the second Test, and reiterated Crawley's merits as a streaky player with a high ceiling.
"There is a lot of quality players to get in the XI. There will be opportunities. What we can't do is try and crowbar people in. We need to take stock when the first Test arrives, what the fitness is like and how the guys are going and we will make the call from there. One thing we are not afraid to do is be brave in selection. If we think it gives us our best opportunity to win, that will be our mantra throughout.
"[Foakes] has been excellent, not just as a wicketkeeper which is world-class. He came up to the stumps to impact the game and got a wicket with Daryl Mitchell stepping back and pulling the ball up in the air. Little things like that make a big difference and, to me, show a real sign that Foakesy is trying to make an impact on the game, which is what you want from all your players. He nearly played an absolute hand at the end to get us across the line and he has played some vital hands right across the summer for us as well. He has really developed as a cricketer for us over the last nine months.
"Our team is set up at the top of the order for Zak to play like that. To become more at ease within that role, he needs to not try to catch form but, day in and day out, turn up with that same aggressive mindset and, if he does that, I have no doubt his talent will come out. He is one of those guys, the Australians from my conversations with Ricky Ponting, they respect him for the instinct and power he has at the top of the order and how destructive he can be. He is still a big player for us moving forward."
The next couple of weeks will be one of reflection for McCullum. Defeat in Wellington scuppered England's chance to register a 100 percent win record this winter, after the 3-0 success in Pakistan followed by the 267-run win at Mount Maunganui in the first Test here. Nevertheless, the manner of this defeat underlined the objective of playing captivating Test cricket.
"I thought it was epic actually. I know we came out on the wrong side of it - or the losing side of it - but in terms of what we set out to achieve at the start of the campaign as a side, I thought we'd certainly played our part in that. I think there'll be millions - tens of millions - of people around the world that sat back and enjoyed that Test match.
"I'm just really proud of the guys and the fight that they've shown, the application they've shown and also the investment and how this team's wanting to play throughout. So yeah, slightly disappointing finish, I guess from a result point of view, but I think it leaves us in a pretty good space moving forward for a pretty big challenge."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo