A year ago, after yet another one-sided Ashes context down under – a 4-0 defeat this time, like the last, and the time before that – the battered and bruised English team limped home to endure the usual soul-searching from the media and assorted punditry.
It was not just the defeat. Nor its manner. England went on to lose to one of the weakest test teams, West Indies, a few weeks later, despite it being heralded as a “red ball reset”. This meant the team had only won one test match from the previous 17 (across more than a year). This was despite their captain, Joe Root, scoring more than 1,700 runs in calendar year 2021, more than anyone else, and the third highest ever.
The Blame Game
Everything was to blame it would seem for this poor state of affairs.
In fact, the incumbent (but soon to be sacked) Director of English Cricket, Ashley Giles – himself an Ashes winner as player – bemoaned that you could “change the captain, change the coach, change me … and nothing would change. The system”, he argued, “is to blame.”
Over the next year, events would prove him 100% wrong. But, at the time, there was some sympathy for this view, and an abundance of hand-wringing.
The poor performance of the test team was due to a combination of: the over-packed English cricket season, with no less than 4 domestic competitions, poor pitches, the wrong ball (yes, really), games being played at the wrong time of year, the Hundred, T20 franchise leagues, poor coaching, the game being almost non-existent in schools except for the wealthiest private ones, the crowded international schedule, the pandemic… Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
And yet, it was precisely at this moment, that the team was on the cusp of a dramatic turnaround, with pretty much the same team of players going on to win 9 out of next 10 tests they played in 2022.
It was not because the opposition was easier.
Over the next nine months, England played test champions New Zealand (winning 3-0), then beat India in a one-off test postponed from the previous year (India is acknowledged as one the best teams, perhaps together with Australia), then beat South Africa 2-1.
Then – most improbably of all – England beat Pakistan away 3-0, which England (nor any team) had ever done before, and where they had only won 2 tests in the previous 70 years. (New Zealand played Pakistan the following month drawing 0-0.)
Joe Root continued his good form, but was joined by 6 players scoring centuries, including Jonny Bairstow, who scored back to back to back centuries, and 1,600 runs by September, when he promptly broke his leg (playing golf!) forcing him to miss the T20 world cup and the test series against Pakistan.
Not only did England win 9 out of 10 tests, something they’d only done once before, they did it at a scoring rate of 4.5 runs an over. On the opening day in Pakistan, they amassed more than 500 runs, in just 75 overs – more than any opening day in any test match, ever, and at more than a run a ball. Never had England won 9 out of 10 following a series of only 1 win in 17. In fact, no team in history had done that before.
To win test matches, a team usually has to take 20 wickets (10 wickets per innings, 2 innings per game). England achieved this in all their 9 victories, and also took 10 wickets in the one innings during their only defeat.
Why the turnaround? And why so fast?
Nothing had changed in “the system”. The ball was the same. The crowded domestic fixture list was the same. Played at the same time. The pitches were the same. The Hundred was still there. No great uptake in school kids playing cricket had happened. The crowded international fixture list – the same. Even the players were (mostly) the same, those that had only won 1 in 17 previously, now won 9 in 10.
The only things that had changed was the leadership. And with it, an incredible shift in mindset, and manner (and speed) in which the test team played.
Contrary to Mr Giles’ lament that changing the Director, coach and captain would make no difference, all three positions were changed. And with dramatic, and immediate effect.
Previous captain Joe Root, exhausted after trying to prop up the team on his own by sheer dint of run-making, had had enough. He resigned after the West Indies tour. Giles was sacked, as was English coach Chris Silverwood (who had had almost supreme power as coach of the one-day and test teams, and head selector.)
Previous Kent captain, and now Sky Sports commentator, the charmingly straight-talking Rob Key was given the Director’s job. He’d never directed anything in his life before. After Root’s resignation, Key promptly called English vice-captain and gladiatorial all-rounder Ben Stokes, to see if he would take the captaincy.
Stokes agreed to take up the role, with former captain Root delighting in the appointment and swearing his support.
Some pundits and former players worried the test captaincy would over burden Stokes. Being a multi-format player, as a test, one day and T20 all rounder, crucial to the team’s fortunes, they cited previous all rounders (Botham, Flintoff) and special players (Kevin Pietersen) as having failed in the leadership role. Yet other countries had had very successful all-rounder captains – notably Gary Sobers (the greatest all-rounder) as captain of West Indies, and Imran Khan and Wasim Akram for Pakistan.
New Leadership. New Approach
An inkling of what was to come came in Stokes’ first interview as captain.
Asked if he would try to make England “harder to beat” (they had only won 1 in 17 at this time remember), he laughed at the suggestion saying sarcastically “Yeah, right, I’m going to be playing for draws!”
This was a throwback to when Nasser Hussain had taken on the captaincy after a similar low period for English cricket in 1999. Hussain vowed the team would now be harder to beat, happily grinding out dour draws if need be, rather than suffer losses.
“We’re not going to play for draws, we are going to play to win,” said Stokes.
This was further emphasised by the stunning decision to appoint Brendon McCullum as English test coach. Former New Zealand captain McCullum was best known for his one-day prowess, and even though he’d played 100 test matches himself, had never coached a red ball team (not even a domestic one.)
The new mindset would be locked in with McCullum announcing upon his appointment that he and Stokes were of one mind: “When we have the ball in hand, we are going to think ‘how can we take wickets?’, and with the bat, ‘How are we going to score runs?”
Not an earth-shattering revelation, one might think. After all, the objective for bowlers is to take wickets, and for batters to score runs.
But it was the emphasis that was different. Often, test bowlers would “bowl dry”, meaning they’d bowl tightly, squeezing up the runs, piling up pressure on the batters, in the hope this would lead to a mistake, and a wicket. In other words, they’d emphasise reducing runs, over taking wickets, with ball in hand. No, said Stokes/McCullum, we don’t mind you going for runs, if you’re seeking wickets.
This took the pressure off the English bowlers. Pitch the ball up, look for swing and seam movement, and don’t worry if you go for a few boundaries. Focus on taking wickets. At all times.
The same instruction for the batters. Look for runs. Don’t prod and poke around and try to stay in for the sake of it, hoping things will get better over time, and runs will come. Proactively look around the field and see where the runs are. Take the game forward.
What followed was an incredible run of 10 test matches. Never have so many runs been scored so quickly over successive test matches, home or away, and never have 10 wickets been taken in every one of 19 successive innings.
Stick or Twist?
A perfect example of this new approach happened early on. England had been set a score of more than 300 to win on the last day. Not impossible, but not often achieved either. In the history of test cricket, it had been done a dozen times (out of 1,700 matches over 150 years).
When the team got to the last break on the last day, with two hours left, the English batting coach asked aloud in the changing rooms “At what stage do we shut up shop and play out for the draw?”. In other words, he was asking how many wickets have to fall before the approach changes from attack to defense. To ensure the test is at least drawn, not lost.
According to reports, coach McCullum ushered everyone in the changing room, closed the doors and said: “At no stage do we go for the draw. I don’t care if the last pair are together. If they see a ball they can hit for four, they are to hit it for four. We will go for the win at all times.”
It was clear, and no one was under any illusion. There was no Plan B. It was an aggressive, positive, results-focussed objective.
The key differential here is everyone bought in. Every player. Stokes and McCullum implored their players to “run towards danger” in much the same way Eoin Morgan (England’s transformative one-day captain from 2015-2022) had done for the white ball teams, culminating in the thrilling World Cup win in 2019, and then the T20 triumph in 2022.
The message was clear: if you can, go for it, with bat and ball. You will not be criticised, you will not be dropped, if you play in that manner.
Take the fear of failure away, and suddenly people can do great deeds. Batters don’t mind getting out, bowlers don’t mind being hit for 4 or 6. As long as they are looking for runs and wickets.
Instil this in a whole team, and the results can be incredible. Of course, you need the players to do it. But almost exactly the same players had played in the 1 win in 17 as in the 9 wins in 10 that followed.
The turnaround was about mindset, the approach, and stemmed from clear leadership. Clearly communicating a vision of how to play, and where we are going, and how we’re going to act.
Tell the team not to fear failure. Ask them to test the boundaries. Commit to action.
A lesson for every leader, and every team.