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News

Ben Stokes embraces the 'why not?' as England look to press harder still

Captain countenances innings forfeiture if play at Multan is limited by the weather

A cut-out of Ben Stokes on the roadside in Multan  •  Getty Images

A cut-out of Ben Stokes on the roadside in Multan  •  Getty Images

At around 1pm at Multan's Ramada Hotel, a handful of England players (those who weren't off to play golf with head coach Brendon McCullum) were milling around as a group of Pakistan players were getting a tune-up at the onsite barber. Meanwhile, Ben Stokes was holding court.
It was, for all intents and purposes, a run-of-the-mill press engagement. The first of this week's duties ahead of the second Test, which begins on Friday. A chance to look back on the brilliant win in Rawalpindi and to ask where England go from here.
But then the session morphed into a series of hypotheticals to establish something that many inside and outside English cricket have been wondering. We are all onboard with the idea that Stokes and McCullum have got these players performing beyond previous limits in unimaginable fashion. But where, now, is the line? How far off is the cliff face? Like Truman Burbank, at what point in this courageous foray into unchartered waters will our protagonists finally hit the wall?
One particular scenario was proposed:
It's the last over of a Test match. You're nine-down, 20 away from your target. James Anderson is on strike. Would Stokes want him to go for the win? "Yes," replied England's Test captain, without hesitation.
A mixture of silence and laughter greeted the response - both reactions a mixture of disbelief and knowing that he was deadly serious. Sure, there may well be a multiverse where Anderson pulls out five perfect reverse sweeps to take the target down. Even that tongue-in-cheek suggestion was greeted with a "why not?" shrug of the shoulders from Stokes.
So a draw is not considered a good result under any circumstance? "Do I need to answer that?" he responded with a smirk. Not long after, Stokes floated the idea of one day forfeiting an innings to speed the match along. Because, heck, why not?
The manner of that victory over Pakistan in the first Test - the batting, the bowling, the field settings, the work ethic and the unwavering belief - reaffirmed that we are in new territory with this Test side, and perhaps the format itself. All associated with the English game are having to recalibrate. And Stokes' answers were welcome because who knows how far this could go. Why put a cap on something bringing equal amounts of glory and joy?
There is, however, a caveat that needs to be added here. These were not just wild shots blazed in the air by Stokes, which admittedly seems to be his approach with the bat nowadays (albeit even that comes from a good place). It was simply a reinforcement that nothing is off the table. No ideas are too crazy. If Anderson has a shot at an unlikely victory in, say, a deciding Test of a series, why should he not go for it? This is all just a game. And at the very least, he could get a single and get the guy at the other end on strike.
The way the first eight Tests of Stokes' tenure have panned out - seven wins, five brilliant chases, one by an innings and this week's last-gasp thriller - have created a domino effect that is hard to fully grasp. This week Pakistan have been implored to try and follow England's lead and adopt their positivity. In a country enamoured with their own cricketers but constantly wrestling with philosophies of style, England are endearing themselves to the locals.
It bears repeating: this is more or less the same group of players who went one win out of 17 before the summer of 2022. That they seem so liberated on the field, and so shorn of the conservative whims of the format and the nation's history therein, is down to Stokes. Someone who, for all his portrayal as a great renegade of our game, has been around the England dressing-room for the best part of a decade, and for most of that period has had a voice that was worthy of being heard.
But given the changes he's overseen: from the style of play to the intuitive fields, to giving the players ownership over their preparation, and the optional training sessions, the later call times to prevent unnecessary waiting around… it all begs the question: why had he not mentioned any of this sooner?
"It wasn't a case of, as soon as I got the job, to do it this way," he explained. "The way in which things are operating now has always been something that I've thought could work, and why not. But whilst Joe [Root] was in charge, it was Joe's team, and I stood by him every single minute of his time in charge of the team. But when I got the opportunity to lead England out, I wanted to do it in a way which I thought could work, and the lads have responded really well to that.
"Test cricket has been pigeon-holed for so long, for such a long time as to how it should be played, how you need to operate, whether that be on the field or off the field ... how you prepare. [But] everyone's played enough cricket and understands their game enough, that if you just give the responsibility to the individual to get ready, why can't that work? Why not?"
There have been moments when Stokes has spoken his mind under previous regimes. He was a regular voice in debriefings, whether at the end of a day's play or after a match, criticising but - more importantly - offering solutions. Perhaps the best recent example was after defeat at Adelaide during last winter's Ashes, when he lamented how meek England had been in the face of an onslaught from Australia's quicks. The feeling at the time was the batters - himself included - needed to give the opposition bowlers something to think about instead of simply allowing themselves to get washed away with the tide. That approach has become the most prominent pillar of Stokes' team now.
He admits he had not spoken of this ethos to the same extent when he was vice-captain, or even as a senior member of the dressing room for so long. But he maintains the fundamentals of enjoying the moment and the grind were central to any of his previous call-to-arms when in the ranks.
"I've always tried to get across 'remember what we're doing, remember where we are, walking out for England with three lions on our chest'," he said. "It's an amazing opportunity. You've got to have as much fun as we possibly can while we're doing it, because in the click of a finger it could all be gone. But in terms of all the other messaging and the language that we speak, no, I don't think so."
The collective buy-in, he believes, has a lot to do with England's white-ball grooving. On the face of it, the influences are pretty clear: scores of 657 and 264 for 7 in the previous Test, at strike-rates of 6.50 and 7.36 respectively, set in motion by four centurions on day one who all consider themselves to be multi-format cricketers to varying degrees. Such a regular diet of limited-overs cricket, in Stokes' opinion, lends itself to wanting to reach a satisfying end-point. And crucially, not simply valuing your wicket but seeing it as an opportunity to add value.
"You look around the whole squad and pretty much everyone at some point plays all three formats around the summer, and in the winters as well," he said. "Playing those different formats where you're always focussing on pushing the game forward and trying to make a result out of that, I guess that helps."
As it happens, Pakistan may be the best place for this England team. The lack of recent, relevant history for touring teams means conclusions from a small sample size aren't very helpful. But at the same time, pitches here are seemingly so unpredictable that even PCB chairman Ramiz Raja and home skipper Babar Azam have been caught cold.
"I see Babar said he wanted a pitch that spun [in Rawalpindi] and it didn't spin - so I've got no idea," Stokes said. And so, no matter how refined and dexterous England may be, going into these matches without pre-conceived ideas has aided the clarity of thought.
"You associate the sub-continent with spin coming into the game a lot more but, as the first Test got further and further in, as that day five got deeper and deeper, it was pretty obvious that seam was going to be the threat with reverse-swing," he said. "If you look at the attack we had in that first innings, we had all bases covered. We had three seamers and three spin options to go to."
This next assignment in Multan will require something a little more outrageous than what we've seen over the last six months if England are to go 2-0 up. Early-morning smog is a cause of concern, not just for health reasons but with visibility so bad that the daily start time of 10am is looking optimistic. England have already fallen victim to the smog on Tuesday when their flight from Islamabad was delayed by three-and-a-half hours before it cleared.
Coupled with the early sunsets, time lost from both ends of the day will make raging against the draw much trickier. While Stokes may seem a dreamer, he is fundamentally a realist with grand ambitions. He knows a draw is coming for his CV, and it may be on the horizon given the various elements at play. But he will do everything within his capacity to make sure that is not the case. Even if it requires something outlandish, such as foregoing an entire innings.
"There's obviously going to be some point along this road where it's virtually impossible to get a result," he said. "If it rains for four days, good luck trying to get a result out of a Test match over one day, or two days, but if you get a good amount of time out of a Test match, I'll always be trying to plan, and talk to Baz about ways in which we can try and force a result, either way. Especially in England with the weather that's around, you might see something even more out-there, even more than you've seen here. I might declare without batting one day, who knows?
"We might see that, actually, in this Test, if it does pan out the way that it could, potentially with the late start and early finish. We could end up having only 300-350 overs in the Test match. We might have to get even a bit more adventurous with what we do. We'll see."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo