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Ben Stokes: 'That last half-hour is everything that you wish for'

England captain not fussed about follow-on tactic gone wrong, says knee will be fine for Ashes in June

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
28-Feb-2023
Ben Stokes, England's captain, insisted that his team's pride at playing a part in one of the most gripping Test matches of all time outweighed their disappointment at the final result, after their run of six Test wins in a row came to an end with an incredible one-run loss against New Zealand in Wellington.
A packed crowd at the Basin Reserve had been invited in for free by Cricket New Zealand in expectation of a gripping finale, and the two teams did not disappoint. In a thrillingly fluctuating final day, England lost four quick wickets in the first hour before settling into a seemingly match-turning sixth-wicket stand between Stokes himself and Joe Root, only for Neil Wagner's short-ball approach to break the game open in a scintillating finale.
"It's right up there," Stokes said. "Going down to the last day, being in the situation of that last half an hour … it's everything you wish for. Even though we came out on the wrong side of it, you can't help but feel blessed that we've managed to be a part of that incredible game.
"It's disappointing to not win, obviously. But we look at the bigger picture of what everyone's enjoyed and seen here today. It's probably bigger than the disappointment at the moment."
One of Stokes' stated aims since taking over the England captaincy has been to max out on entertainment, and risk losing games in order to win them. That policy has paid handsome dividends over the past year, most especially in Pakistan before Christmas when England's attacking instincts broke open the series, most memorably in the first Test at Rawalpindi.
"That's obviously a huge objective of ours," he added. "I don't want people to get mixed up, [because] that doesn't mean that we're not fussed if we don't win or lose. Obviously, we always want to win. It's very disappointing to lose, but you can't help but be excited that we've been a part of a game like that."
Besides being only the second one-run win in Test history, after West Indies' victory over Australia at Adelaide in 1992-93, this was the fourth time that a side has won a Test match despite being asked to follow-on - and like the most recent occasion, the Kolkata Test in 2000-01, the turning point of the match was arguably Stokes' decision to enforce the follow-on, after New Zealand had been bowled out for 210 on the third morning.
The man himself, however, had no regrets about his call, even though New Zealand's second innings of 483 - built around a doughty century from the Player of the Match Kane Williamson - meant that his bowlers spent more than 215 consecutive overs in the field.
"Imagine captaining in hindsight?" he said. "That's nothing that I would ever do.
"It was always our game to lose once we enforced the follow-on," he added. "But the logic behind it was that our opening bowlers have ripped through their top-order for three innings in a row. We knew that New Zealand had to pretty much play the perfect game to put us in a situation like this."
In England's home summer, Stokes' men had chased consecutive targets of 277, 299 and 296 against New Zealand, followed by a hefty 358 against India, and so despite their tough grind in the field, Stokes insisted that the target this time around, 258, had not left his team daunted.
"Batting in the last innings, chasing 250 is something that we were never worried about," he said. "But give huge credit to New Zealand, not only to the way that they played in the second innings, but also the way that they bowled and managed to get very early wickets with not too many runs on the board.
"So in terms of looking back and making my decision around the follow-on, No, I don't regret it. Other teams are allowed to play better than us and New Zealand have played better than us this week."
England's next Test assignment is the one-off four-day Test against Ireland - starting June 1 - followed by the Ashes and while they are bound to head into the series with confidence after four wins in five this winter, one area of concern is Stokes' own fitness. His troublesome left knee was causing him visible pain, both during a curtailed two-over spell in the second innings, and for long periods of his own second innings, a dogged 33 from 116 balls that ended with an off-balance pull against a Wagner short ball.
Before the series begins in June, Stokes is due to play a season of IPL with Chennai Super Kings - which he may leave early to prep for the Ashes - but he said he had no plans to withdraw at this stage, instead hoping that the less intense workload of T20 cricket would give him more time to get it right off the field.
"I'm not sure exactly," he said, when asked how his knee was feeling. "There's maybe three or four months before we get to the Ashes and we've worked incredibly hard with our physios and medics to get everything right strength-wise.
"But it's been very difficult out here, especially once the Tests have started, because the games came thick and fast. But it's a good opportunity out in India to get myself into a position that I feel like I don't have to worry about my knee anymore.
"I'm not going to lie. It is very frustrating knowing that I've got something holding me back in terms of my body. It's been around for a while. It is frustrating, but we're doing everything we possibly can to allow me to fulfil that fourth-seamer role, like I was able to do two or three years ago. Hopefully, come the Ashes, I don't have to worry about it."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket