At the start of the year, English Test cricket looked broken.
The man that would ultimately fix it was also a bit broken, with Ben Stokes battling a side strain during the fourth and fifth fixtures of an Ashes series England lost 4-0, a drubbing which came amid a wider malaise of one win in 17 Test matches.
But Stokes has since returned to rude health and so, in scarcely believable fashion, have England’s Test team. Under Stokes’ captaincy and Brendon McCullum’s coaching methods, ‘Bazball’ was born. That ultra-positive brand of cricket has earned nine victories from 10, during which run-rate records have been shattered and opposition bowling attacks battered. This is Ben Stokes’ England.
We caught a glimpse, although we didn’t know it at the time, of what Ben Stokes’ England might look like when he smashed 89 runs in a session during a 114-ball hundred against West Indies in March, his first century since his return from a mental-health break and the death of his father, Ged.
However, we then caught another glimpse of what England had served up across the previous 18 months or so – a batting collapse – with a capitulation in Grenada subjecting the tourists to a 1-0 series defeat. Joe Root resigned as captain soon after, with one man in pole position to succeed him.
Stokes seemed the only realistic candidate with few others, bar he and Root, guaranteed a place in the XI at that point. The Test futures of bowling stalwarts Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad were even up in the air with the duo left out of the West Indies series by interim managing director of men’s cricket Sir Andrew Strauss.
There were questions asked over whether England giving the reins to their most important and influential player was wise, particularly one who had taken time out of the sport the previous year to focus on his well-being. Those questions soon evaporated and now it seems staggering they were even posed in the first place. Results and style have shown Stokes was definitely the right man.
Soon after being appointed, and making it clear he wanted Broad and Anderson back in the England XI, Stokes made mincemeat of Worcestershire’s bowling attack while batting for Durham in the County Championship. Seventeen sixes were smoked in his score of 161 from 88 balls – five of them in as many deliveries off poor Pears spinner Josh Baker.
It was an innings of flair and force, the like of which he encouraged his fellow England batters to play in Test cricket. He has got what he wanted. England scored 22 Test hundreds in 2022, many of them since Stokes took charge unbelievably rapid.
It was a measured, but by no means slow, 157-ball hundred from Root that got the Stokes era off to a victorious start on a cloudy Sunday morning against New Zealand at Lord’s. Any metaphorical clouds still lingering over England were removed as they won a Test for the first time since August. There has been no looking back. Wins aplenty. Runs aplenty. Fans loving Test cricket again.
Stokes hit the winning boundary in the next Test at Trent Bridge, in front of a packed fifth-day crowd who had taken advantage of the offer of free tickets, but only after Jonny Bairstow had blasted the Black Caps all over Nottingham in a post-tea onslaught, reaching his century from just 77 balls.
The skipper then had a watching brief at the end of the following two Tests, donning his John Lennon sunglasses on the balcony as Root and Bairstow powered England to startling victories over New Zealand at Headingley and India at Edgbaston. The successful run chase against India, a record 378, was achieved in just 76.4 overs. England were four from four in part one of the Test summer.
Part two started with the side’s only loss under Stokes to date – an innings drubbing against South Africa at Lord’s – but rather than England being too aggressive, the chat was they were too timid and that old frailties had crept back in. Fans needn’t have worried. A Stokes-led response was incoming, with England meting out an innings thrashing to the Proteas at Emirates Old Trafford, a week after suffering one of their own in north London.
The skipper had perhaps been too skittish with the bat earlier in the summer as he tried to hammer home the way he wanted his team to play but in the Manchester Test, on the day his warts-and-all Amazon documentary, Phoenix from the Ashes, was released, he scored a superb 103 from 163 balls at the perfect tempo.
Stokes was then the game-breaker with the ball a day later, dismissing set South Africa batters Keegan Petersen and Rassie van der Dussen during a herculean 14-over spell ahead of the second new ball before England went on to win inside three days.
Big-moment Ben at it again.
A further three-day victory in the final Test at The Kia Oval meant a series win and a glorious golden summer. But how would Bazball work in Pakistan in December? Quite well, as it turns out. England sweeping an admittedly bowler-depleted home side 3-0, with the victory in Rawalpindi possibly Stokes’ finest of his nine wins as skipper. On the flattest of pitches, his captaincy hit new heights.
After watching his team become the first to pummel 500 on the first day of a Test, Stokes’ bold declaration at tea on day four, setting Pakistan a tempting 343 in four sessions, gave his side time to take 10 wickets and he then helped ensure they got them, delaying the use of the new ball while the old one was reversing and then finally bringing it into play before spinner Jack Leach took the final wicket with around 10 minutes left on day five.
“I do not think I have seen a better week of captaincy,” said Sky Sports Cricket’s Nasser Hussain. “Every decision Stokes made was spot on.”
Stokes continued to make smart decisions over the next two Tests – inventive fields, shrewd bowling changes – and some incredibly bold ones, too – handing leg-spinner Rehan Ahmed his debut at 18 years and 126 days – as England won in Multan and Karachi, too.
Smart and bold decisions from Stokes over the last seven months have revolutionised England’s Test team. After suffering a nightmare Ashes series last winter, England could prove a nightmare for Australia next summer.
Stokes’ year in white-ball cricket, meanwhile, was one of retirement in the 50-over format and redemption in the 20-over version.
The 31-year-old quit one-day internationals in July due to an “unsustainable” schedule, saying players are “not cars you can just fill up with petrol”. Stokes’ decision a reminder for the game’s organisers that if they want to see more of the best players then perhaps play less cricket.
Stokes continues to play T20 cricket, though, and England are eternally grateful to him for that.
His intelligent innings of 52 not out secured victory over Pakistan in the World Cup final at the MCG, three years after his intelligent innings of 84 not out proved pivotal in securing victory over New Zealand in that unforgettable 50-over World Cup final at Lord’s.
Big-moment Ben at it again.
Stokes, who had led England past Sri Lanka and into the semi-finals with another unbeaten knock a week earlier in Australia, was left standing tall in a T20 World Cup final six years on from being down on his haunches and in tears after being smoked for four successive sixes by West Indies’ Carlos Brathwaite in the 2016 showpiece.
It was quite the turnaround. But it is the Test turnaround he has masterminded for which Stokes’ year will be most remembered. That Ashes pain he and England were feeling in January looks a lifetime ago now. From being broken to breaking records, with Stokes the catalyst.