Ben Stokes’ England are so far beating their greatest enemy – second-guessing themselves

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“It’s a game of failure, batting,” said Joe Root five minutes after this Test finished. The statement was on the one hand very sage and on the other just plain wrong.

Four times in a row England have chased a lot of runs to win. This would be remarkable even if they hadn’t gone into this summer having spent several years being just about the collapsiest team in Test history.

Set in that context, this run of matches seems about as predictable as Twin Peaks: The Return. (Oh look, the doppelganger’s awake. Oh look, it’s Nine Inch Nails. Oh look, the first detonation of an atomic bomb. Oh look, a humanoid form floating in the void spewing a stream of primordial fluid. “Got a light?”)

In actual fact, the most unpredictable development has been what has now become predictable.

That’s overstating things, but you get the sentiment. How did you feel when England were challenged to make 378? How did you feel when they were 100-0? How did you feel once Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root were up and running?

Our nerves would normally surge as the batters neared their target. Today? Not so much. Normally, as the prospect of victory increases we get nervier and nervier about the growing volume of good work that could be thrown away. Today every boundary made us calmer.

It’s a dramatic shift in attitude on our part. The players may well feel similarly. That would certainly help get the most out of them.

Getting the most out of them

Here are three lines from a piece we wrote about England’s failed 2015 World Cup campaign, each of which seems a weirdly good description of how Ben Stokes is trying to shape the Test team alongside Brendon McCullum.

  • The will to win will always triumph when pitted against a fear of failure
  • Self-expression thrives best in a stable environment
  • Good cricket requires conviction

If you listen to interviews with England’s captain, you will repeatedly hear him alluding to each of these three principles.

Always striving for victory, no matter what the match situation, isn’t so much about blind positivity. It’s more about recognising that clear-mindedness is vital. And if you have to sacrifice a bit of wider sense and reason to ensure that ball-by-ball clarity, then so be it.

A mentality of trying to win games and not countenancing any other option may sound moronically simplistic, but it keeps players clear-headed and wards away the kind of second-guessing that so often results in getting out.

It helps ensure conviction. Stokes’ recent batting has been a bonkers attempt to instil the same thing in his team. “Don’t worry about making bad decisions, lads,” he is saying as he sashays down the pitch and bazzes wildly. “Just make sure you follow through with whatever you decide. Don’t get caught in two minds. I promise I won’t bollock you. I can’t really because just look at this mad shit that I’m trying.”

England haven’t found better players, but they do seem to be minimising that doubt and in-the-moment self-questioning that hampers performance. (Reflecting on your decisions later is a different thing.)

‘Don’t wonder what people think you should be doing’ is the message. ‘Just choose your shots and play them with conviction.’


Elsewhere in that 2015 World Cup piece we said: “Practice makes perfect and the more times you’ve done something, the more confident you will be that you can perform the task in question.” This seems a fair summary of how England approached this latest run chase. It was unquestionably built on the three smaller ones that preceded it.

The best way to chase huge targets is to practise doing so. And you can only ever do that if you make those attempts in the first place. It’s all very ‘let’s see what we can do’.

Chasing 378 is a big ask, but it seems an entirely credible prospect when you made 296-3 to win the previous game. And that previous chase only really seemed credible after making 299-5 to win the game before that. That in turn seemed reasonable after England had made 279-5 to win the first Test of the summer.

If Jonny Bairstow has shifted his team-mates’ perceptions, it’s only because he’s been ambitious and had a go in the first place. That gave him a chance and having a go with conviction gave him a better chance.

Stokes’ position is maybe 450’s possible, maybe 500’s possible. Why rule it out? May as well have a go.

Now for the counterpoint.

The case against

One: While Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami are fantastic bowlers, India are not that long in the country and aren’t running as hot as they can. Some of the support cast in particular looked a step or two adrift from where they were last year.

Two: It’s shaping up as a good summer to be a middle-order batter. Whether that’s something to do with this season’s Dukes balls, we don’t know, but we’ve seen it in every Test – and not just from England. Daryl Mitchell and Tom Blundell made an extraordinary number of runs for New Zealand batting at five, six and seven. Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja made hundreds in this Test.

This doesn’t negate England’s recent achievements with the bat, but perhaps it contextualises them a little. Maybe the revolution has had a little bit of a tailwind.

Does that mean this isn’t sustainable? Chasing near enough 400 to win in the fourth innings probably isn’t, but the mentality of always making the attempt might be. And if the unequivocal nature of that modus operandi helps simplify the players’ approach then that’s probably a net gain.


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  1. Excellent piece. Yes, what a chase. What a time to be alive. And yet, flat pitches, Duke balls, won’t happen every time, etc etc.

    Let’s just enjoy it for now. Utterly, stupendously, thoroughly ridiculous.

  2. Surely the mantra is “dance like no one is watching”? An admiral sentiment in a spectator sport

      1. Really enjoyed digesting this piece, KC. If I was going out to bat I’d want She Sells Sanctuary by the Cult. I reckon Brendon McCullum has The Safety Dance by Men Without Hats blasting out in the changing room.

    1. Dukes ball thing does seem really weird – heard an interview with their boss a few days ago where he sounded genuinely at a loss to explain it, and was pretty much crossing his fingers that the problem would disappear next year. But even in the worst case scenario, hopefully recent results gives the team a bit of breathing space to bed down and really start improving.

      I hope Stokes etc. are aware of the difference between taking the initiative, playing without fear, and forcing the other side to have to make decisions they don’t want to, on the one hand, and making bloody stupid decisions, on the other. Morgan always has been. It’s not about being aggressive all the time – this is slightly obscured by the fact that England’s limited over teams do in fact think it’s sensible to be aggressive all the time when batting, but they definitely don’t when bowling.

      I fear that asking your test openers to attack at all times might be less like asking the same from your one day openers, and more like having four slips in place throughout a one day innings. Attacking, but cretinous. Always got the feeling Morgan had data and shrewd reasoning behind his decisions, and I’m not sure about Stokes. Is “we prefer chasing” a sensible argument for choosing to bowl first in a test? It makes me uneasy.

      Then again, I’m a miserable bastard, particularly when it comes to cricket, so I’m probably wrong. Hope so.

    2. Sorry, didn’t mean to respond to your comment, JJ. Whenever I dance like nobody’s watching it seems to lead to mocking laughter rather than awed admiration, but again, miserable bastard, etc.

  3. I get all the “don’t get carried away” stuff, and obviously there will be conditions/situations where the positive approach will still fall short, but England have faced situations like the ones they’ve had this summer and not come close to winning them. Attacking as a mindset, not just swinging at every ball (except Stokes), seems to be having the effect of psychologically undermining the opposition. It’s clear already just from the NZ series that once England had launched a succesful early attack in the 4th innings, the Indian team were giving off strong “oh God, they’re doing it again” vibes, and I think that’s more likely to give you a chance of success in any conditions than meekly going into your shell. The other team always plays much better when you let them do their thing. Throwing a few punches back seems to have the opposite effect. And quickly! Anyway, basically, enjoy it. It’s still an achievement in spite of the (fair) caveats, and even if they lose in future, it’s much more fun seeing them give it some proper humpty rather than being resigned and timid as soon as they face a challenge. Fun times!

    1. Caveats have their place, but Stokes’ England are unquestionably a better and more proactive side than what came before, regardless of what happens next.

  4. I kind of wonder what will happen if they loose the toss and have to bat first – can they set a target? Not saying they can’t, but what is now competitive in the fourth innings?

    1. Root said they’d decided to bowl, just so they could chase. The question is, which team that wins the toss will make them bat just to deny them this chance?

  5. One factor surely is that batters now have different skills than in the olden days. They have more shots, more power and are skilled in using them. Plus, boundaries are shorter and bats more powerful. In some ways, white ball cricket has become more sophisticated than red ball in both strategy and skills. This is especially true in batting. Playing positively now is much more likely to succeed than it would have been 20, even 10 years ago.

    What I expect to see is more teams going this way but also adapting their bowling. Spinners are very important in T20. NZ didn’t play theirs. Jadeja has a great record in Tests but isn’t a mystery bowler. If SA and come with a bunch of right arm fast medium I can see them getting hammered.

    1. More shots equals more options which can stymie things as per above. It makes simplifying players’ thinking even more important really.

      1. Completely agree, just feel we need to acknowledge the new skills this approach needs. And maybe T20 has helped produce more clear thinking cricketers?

  6. If this happens for the next few years, do you think the bowlers will adapt? It’s good to use this summer as an example and use Root and Bairstow as role model for fearless batting. What about bowlers? If the scoring rate is 4-5 per over will that help bowlers to be a role model?

  7. An excellent chase and a well deserved win for England. However, I do question how sustainable this is.

    Root is on an extended run of glorious form, and Bairstow is batting well beyond the levels he has done before.
    Are either of them (Bairstow especially) going to keep playing like this year after year? I wouldn’t think so. The Dukes balls won’t always behave the way they have been this summer and pitches won’t always stay flat enough to hit through the line late on day four.

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