Although the new captain recognizes that success will not come overnight, he is pleased with the team’s early success.
Both players are winners and are great friends. However, at Lord’s on Sunday, the contrast between Ben Stokes’ and Joe Root’s joy over England’s first-Test victory over New Zealand was palpable.
Root, unburdened by the captaincy – not so much in terms of his personal performance after notching up yet another century, his 26th in Tests to bring up 10,000 runs – but free of all the sundries wrapped up in the role he relinquished after the ill-fated Caribbean tour – appeared to be a man thoroughly relieved.
Stokes, on the other hand, exuded the zeal of a captain who had just won his first game since taking over the captaincy and beginning work with new coach Brendon McCullum, as well as the resolve of a leader who understands his team faces “a long road ahead of us.”
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Stokes said. “This is what Brendon and I are aiming for, and we know it, but it’s a great start to win.”
So, while England’s victory signaled the start of a new era by ending a nine-match losing streak, it wasn’t a complete turnaround. Some of the old issues still exist.
They were bowled out for 141 in their first innings, only a few runs better than New Zealand’s 132, and they were 69 for 4 in their second, chasing 277, before Stokes and Root calmed things down with a 90-run fifth-wicket stand. With an unbroken stand of 120 runs just over an hour into the fourth day, Root and Ben Foakes sealed the victory.
Stokes, on the other hand, appears to have genuinely bought into everything McCullum has introduced in terms of mindset and tactics, as one might expect. For example, Stokes revealed that if needed on the third evening, Stuart Broad would be sent in at No. 8, ahead of debutant Matthew Potts.
“When Foakesy went out to bat, he said if we lost the wicket, he’d send Broady in and have a slog, just to score 30, 40 runs, and the game’s over,” Stokes said. “That’s the kind of thing we don’t see in the dressing room very often.” These kinds of things will do us a world of good if they start to circulate.
“In any situation that we’re in, the confidence and energy that he brings, his mindset towards the game, he’ll make everyone feel 10-foot tall, and I’ve really enjoyed working with him so far this week.”
There was a sense toward the end of Root’s tenure, during the failed Ashes campaign, that his working relationship with veteran seamers Broad and James Anderson had soured, and the pair were dumped for the West Indies tour.
One of the first moves by the new regime was to recall the two for the match against New Zealand, and Anderson and Potts each took four wickets in the first innings, while Broad’s three wickets, including two in three balls as part of a team hat-trick, turned the match on its head on the third morning.
When asked what aspect of his first match as captain he was most proud of, Stokes cited his use of Anderson, Broad, and Durham teammate Potts.
“Everyone knows who Jimmy and Broady are,” he explained. “The only difference in Matty’s role was that he normally takes the new ball for Durham,” says the coach. But Durham’s captain, Scotty [Borthwick], has relied on him throughout the summer to get the wicket, get the breakthrough, and change the game, and that’s how I wanted to use him this week. And he did it every time I tossed the ball to him.
“I’m always trying to stay positive and just staying true to what I’m saying and how I want to captain rather than letting the game dictate what I do.” I was just making sure that I was sticking to my guns and that I was always looking to be positive in the way that I wanted the bowlers to bowl, the fields that I set… stick to everything you’ve been saying because, as you know, actions speak louder than words.”
Stokes was full of praise for Root, as well as Foakes, who batted maturely for 32 runs off 92 balls.
“At the moment, we can’t afford not to select world-class players,” Stokes said, “and Ben is the best wicketkeeper in the world.” That is not just my opinion; it is the opinion of many others.
“Batting at seven for England is different from the role he plays for Surrey because he bats higher up, but going in last night for 45 minutes was a huge part of the game and he handled it brilliantly.” And him leaving without going out with Joe at the end will undoubtedly boost his confidence for the rest of the summer.
“He took some catches that looked easy but were not, and having a gloveman like Ben behind the stumps gives me and the bowlers a lot of confidence.”
Stokes was relaxed when asked how he’d managed to park the captaincy ‘after hours,’ in light of Root’s searingly honest press conference moments before, in which he detailed how heavily the role had begun to impact his life outside of cricket.
Having lost his wicket the previous evening after contributing a valuable, if streaky half-century, he admitted he had a relatively easy job on what turned out to be the final morning.
He shrugged and said, “It’s been fine.” “It was my birthday last night, and I didn’t have much to do today, so it was nice to go out and have dinner with the family and a couple of beers,” he explained.
“It’s a great start, we’ve won, but there will obviously be ups and downs.” And it’s just dealing with that, but I think having Brendon and me in charge will make a big difference in how we operate when things don’t go as planned.”
Despite England’s victory, McCullum chose not to speak to the press after the match, presumably to allow his new captain Stokes and match-winner Root to enjoy the moment.