There was a certain irony when Ben Stokes spoke on the day Alex Hales returned to the white-ball squad when he spoke about the huge role team spirit has played in England’s Test transformation.
The England captain’s insistence that off-field dynamics between a side who clearly get along extremely well was crucial to a run of five wins from six Tests is certainly at odds with the World Cup call-up of a man who has since Banned for three years is “trust issues”.
While pragmatism reigns supreme in a white-ball team understandably keen to find the short-term fix Hales could bring to Australia in Jonny Bairstow’s sudden absence, Stokes will continue to advocate the virtues of Test togetherness.
England captain Ben Stokes is hoping the togetherness will bring a summer to a triumphant end
“It’s very important that groups can spend time away from the cricket pitches,” Stokes said ahead of Thursday’s crucial Test against South Africa, in response to a question about England’s players spending time together on the golf course in the 11 days since the last Test.
“It makes you feel like you’re playing a little bit more for each other. You’re always going to go out there and try to do well, but when you manage to connect like we did this summer, that’s what you want to do out there for the team.
Now, Stokes is hoping the togetherness will bring a triumphant end to a summer in which England have, with almost evangelical zeal, rewritten the Test playbook and, at a crucial time, proved once again that it is the best, most entertaining and fulfilling form of the game .
Stokes believes England’s uncompromising attacking style – “even if it rains, we won’t be playing for a tie in this game,” he said – is bringing new fans to cricket and it’s the perfect antidote to the ECB jeopardizing the sport’s future The Hundred and Sir Andrew Strauss plan to reduce the amount of Red Ball County Championship cricket.
Stokes attends training ahead of the third test against South Africa on Wednesday
A win at the Kia Oval would see England’s best summer of testing since Michael Vaughan’s side won all seven games in 2004, and confirm an exceptional renaissance after a run of just one win in 17 Tests under Joe Root and Chris Silverwood.
“This shows massive progress in a short amount of time and it’s been amazing to be a part of it,” said Stokes. “The whole nation enjoyed watching us play because sometimes they don’t know what they’re going to get. It’s always going to be entertaining whether we’re losing or winning, so it’s great.
“I think when you first come up with something you’re not sure of the reaction, but it was amazing how quickly everyone bought into how we want to play.”
To clinch that crucial win England will have to overcome the absence of Bairstow, who breaks his ankle in such unusual circumstances playing one of those golf games, but at least they have a replacement worthy of an overdue debut at Harry Brook.
Stokes believes team spirit was key to a run of five wins in six Tests
The Yorkshire man is playing after averaging over 100 points in the Championship earlier this season and prior to this series scoring 140 against South Africa in a six-six innings for the Lions at Canterbury.
And while South Africa captain Dean Elgar dismissed that blow irritably as Brook spinner picked Keshav Maharaj apart and said: “This is Test cricket, he’s in the big league now,” Stokes has no doubt that Brook, at 23, is ready for the ultimate ascension is .
“There’s just things that stand out about certain players like the time they have at the crease and the shots they play and Harry has shown what he can do this summer,” Stokes said previously with a smile and assessed Brooks’ personality in the locker room.
“He’s laid back, keeps to himself and just does what he does. He’s a bit stupid, if I may say so, but he’s such a good player. I’ve been called stupid a lot, so that’s ok!
Stokes has no doubts batsman Harry Brook (above) is ready at 23 to make the step up
At the opposite end of the scale, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad play today with no sign of another glorious end-of-season Oval in sight and their absence from last winter’s West Indies tour seems increasingly inexplicable.
Stokes is delighted with how both have reacted to his brave new world and expects to be there at least until Ashes next year. “I honestly can’t see a point where they decide it’s time for them to step down,” the captain said.
“Jimmy came out and said how much fun he was having and Broady’s influence in the dressing room is the best I’ve seen playing with him over the years. The conversations he has not only with me but also with the bowlers and how he wants to help them took him to another level. It’s great to see Jimmy at 40 and Broady at 36 have such a new life in the dressing room.
The one issue Stokes seemed less than enthusiastic about was the return of Hales, but he could have vetoed it if he’d been strong enough, as there’s no way Jos Buttler and Rob Key are going against the wishes of their most important player would have acted.
But Stokes puts the interests of the Twenty20 team first by taking a pragmatic view, and he deserves as much credit for that as the really important work he does for Test Cricket.
Victory at the Kia Oval would cap England’s best summer of testing since 2004