England’s Men: A Year To Remember

England lift the T20 World Cup at the MCG

England’s men’s cricket team has risen like a Pheonix from the wreckage of yet another Ashes defeat down under. Rewind a year, and England had just received a mauling at the MCG, skittled for a paltry 68 in their second innings, losing the Test match in three days, the Ashes long gone. It was a classic series down under; England were destroyed on the pitch and dogged off it by rumours of discord, muddled selection, a drinking culture, and even fat shaming. Head Coach Chris Silverwood fell on his sword, following in Ashley Giles’s footsteps, who relinquished his role as England’s managing director.

The transformation has been massive. England’s test side are now pioneers, ushering in a brave new era of Test cricket with their attacking style of play, smashing boundaries and breaking them simultaneously. Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes have proved to be a match made in heaven, cut from the same cloth, entertainers on the pitch, happy to take risks. Live by the sword, die by the sword; that’s England’s new motto. The results have matched the spectacle. England have won an incredible nine out of their last ten Test matches, the icing on the cake being a superb whitewash in Pakistan.

However, the transformation wasn’t instantaneous. England headed to the West Indies earlier in the year in a perilous state. Paul Collingwood was the man charged with leading the leaky ship in the short term, with fast bowling stalwarts James Anderson and Stuart Broad inconceivably left at home, a decision they made a mockery of in the summer. England lost a dull three-match series 1-0, subsiding to a humbling defeat in Grenada, Kyle Mayers the unlikely destroyer, strangling England’s batters on his way to figures of 5-18. Root resigned the captaincy on his return home, a typically selfless decision befitting a man of immense character, whose batting remained perpetually unaffected by any leadership woes.

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Brendon McCullum was the man charged with salvaging the wreckage of England’s Test side, a left-field selection considering he had never previously coached a red-ball side. It was an energising selection, however, and has proved to be a masterstroke from England’s managing director Rob Key, another slightly left-field choice who has excelled in his role thus far. Ben Stokes was installed as captain, a more obvious choice, a born winner who would lead from the front. An exciting new era dawned, but when Key told us to “buckle up and get ready for the ride,” no one could have predicted what followed.

New Zealand were the first visitors to test England’s new regime, allowing McCullum to lay down a marker against his compatriots. The first Test saw England chase down 277 to win at Lords, Joe Root leading them home with a superb unbeaten century, passing 10,000 Test runs and banishing his winter demons in the process. Matthew Potts picked up 4-13 on debut as England skittled New Zealand for 132 in the first innings. At the same time, Matt Parkinson cemented his status as a future quiz question, becoming England’s first-ever concussion substitute. It was a helter-skelter Test match and just an aperetif of what was to come.

England’s chase at Lords looked mediocre a week later as Trent Bridge hosted a bombastic Test match, culminating in England chasing down 299 in just 50 overs. After trading scores of over 500 in the first innings (a marked contrast from Lords), England looked to be running out of time. But Jonny Bairstow’s ballistic hundred from just 77 balls helped them over the line, Ben Stokes providing an apt foil to the carnage with an unbeaten 75. The chaos rolled on to Headingly, Bairstow salvaging England’s first innings with another brilliant hundred. Mired at 55-6, Bairstow and debutant Jamie Overton opted to launch a thrilling counterattack, adding 241 for the 7th wicket. Once again, England chased a score in excess of 250, Joe Root and Ollie Pope making impressive eighties, Bazball’s new poster boy Bairstow snatching the glory with a rapid unbeaten 71. The series was won 3-0, and England’s Test transformation was underway.

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England’s penchant for run chases continued with the arrival of India, playing the rescheduled Test from last year’s COVID aborted series. England conceded a 132-run deficit in the first innings, despite another Bairstow hundred and the rightly restored James Anderson taking a five-for. New England relished the uphill task and cantered past their target of 378 to win, their highest successful Test run chase. With another century in what was proving to be a golden summer, Bairstow and the equally impressive Joe Root led England home in an unbroken 269-run partnership.

South Africa followed for a three-match series where the ball firmly dominated the bat. Bazball reached its first bump in the road at Lords as England were hammered by an innings and 12 runs. But England responded emphatically at Old Trafford, recording their own innings victory, Ben Stokes and Ben Foakes making excellent hundreds. Ollie Robinson took 4-43 in South Africa’s second innings to cap a triumphant return and set up a decider at The Oval. England capped off a tremendous summer with a nine-wicket victory on an emotionally charged occasion following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Ollie Robinson picked up a five-for as no side passed 200 during the match, Zak Crawley leading England’s canter to victory to end a wretched personal summer on a high note.

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However, the summer wasn’t all sunshine and roses. England’s white-ball form was patchy despite breaking the record for the highest-ever ODI total against the Netherlands, amassing 498 in the first match of the series and whacking 26 sixes in the process. Different colour ball same England. During the series, the curtain came down on captain Eoin Morgan’s stellar international career. Morgan finished his career with successive ducks, an undeservedly ignominious ending for a man who completely transformed England’s white-ball game. Morgan’s astute and calm leadership, as well as his innovative and destructive batting, was a key component of England becoming World champions in 2019. Ben Stokes also ended his one-day international career, announcing his retirement during the series against South Africa, an indictment on the international calendar and the unrealistic physical and mental demands it places on players.

If England’s white-ball cricket had been patchy during the summer, it was anything but during the T20 World Cup in Australia, a minor blip against Ireland aside. England’s triumph down under had been preceded by a superb, see-sawing series in Pakistan; England edged the seven-match series 4-3 on their historic return.

England had to work hard for their triumph after a surprise defeat against Ireland and a washout against Australia left them behind the curve. However, England produced when it mattered, defending 179 against New Zealand with a superb bowling performance before edging past Sri Lanka with two balls to spare, thanks to an ice-cool innings from Stokes. England blew India away in the semi-finals, with Jos Buttler and Alex Hales smashing England to a ten-wicket victory. Hales’s return hadn’t been without controversy, but he rewarded England’s faith with his excellent performances on the pitch. England faced Pakistan in the final, restricting them to 137 after winning the toss. Stokes choosing the perfect moment to score his maiden international T20 as England chased down their target with an over to spare. England’s hero of the tournament was Sam Curran, whose superb figures of 3-12 from his four overs in the final were instrumental in England’s victory. He deservedly won player of the tournament, a reward for his canny death bowling, taking 13 wickets at an impressive average of 11.38. Curran’s status as a star of T20 cricket was cemented earlier this month when he became the most expensive auction buy in the history of the Indian Premier League, the Punjab Kings forking out £1.85 million for his services.

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England’s Test team returned to action at the end of the year after a pointless ODI series in Australia, played in front of small crowds. England unsurprisingly lacked the requisite energy and motivation, losing all three matches. England’s return to Pakistani soil was much hyped; they hadn’t played a Test series there in seventeen years and arrived full of confidence after a sensational summer, albeit shorn of an injured Jonny Bairstow. There were questions about how England’s expansive style would fare on the subcontinent. Would they sink or swim? A virus in the camp almost put the kybosh on such questions, briefly throwing the first Test into doubt.

Thankfully, the Test went ahead and provided five days of scintillating entertainment, England prising out Pakistan’s tail in near-darkness to take the victory. England’s win had been built upon an unbelievable first day, as they became the first side to smash 500 on the first day of a Test match. It was controlled carnage and set the tone for a compelling series. England edged a thriller in Multan to take the series, despite the debut heroics of Abrar Ahmed. The whitewash was sealed a week later in Karachi, Rehan Ahmed announcing himself as a star of the future with a five-for on debut. England’s series victory was full of heroes; Harry Brook scored three consecutive centuries, Ben Duckett made a triumphant return at the top of the order, and England’s seamers made a mockery of the sterile conditions.

It was a superb performance from England, achieved through aggressive, innovative cricket, wonderfully led by Ben Stokes. The side’s culture has been completely transformed, and England’s players enjoy themselves; they play to win but in a relaxed atmosphere. England’s men’s team has provided a desperately needed positive narrative at a time when questions swirl around the county game and possible proposed changes to the structure of the English game. Unlike McCullum and Stokes, The Hundred and the county game isn’t a compatible match. If England’s test performances this year are anything to go by, the county game deserves more credit than it receives. Roll on 2023.

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