I just returned from India with the cricketers I coach at Harrow school. I am fortunate enough to be able to rotate players in and out of the first-team squad at the present due to the presence of several talented players and some depth.
I always push young players to be all-rounders – you want athletic cricketers who can hopefully contribute with the bat, the ball, and in the field – and recently the squad’s quality and adaptability have given me the freedom to shuffle the lineup and provide additional opportunities.
It is one thing to achieve this with a school team and quite another to do it in a Test side, but England appears to be taking this even further and breaking established cricket stereotypes in a significant way.
Ben Stokes chose a spinner to start the bowling with the new ball in all three Tests played in Pakistan. On a twisting track, this approach has been employed numerous times as a one-off, but England made it a policy by doing it in three consecutive meetings.
Ollie Pope was a wicketkeeper for England Under-19s, but he had never held that position for Surrey. However, when circumstances necessitated creative thinking, he stepped into that role and performed competently.
Ben Duckett normally does not start for his county. Once upon a time, batting at the top of the order was viewed as a specialist position, particularly in first-class cricket, but again, tradition has been questioned, the player has embraced it, and thus far it has proven to be a tremendous success. Rehan Ahmed, an 18-year-old spinner making his debut, batted at No. 3 in the final innings of the series.
When Graeme Hick was asked if he wanted to open, he insisted that he preferred to bat at No. 3. In my generation, players were superstitious about their number, unwilling to switch positions, and frequently felt out of place when compelled to do so.
But in white-ball cricket, players have become accustomed to moving places, and they have taken this mentality over to first-class cricket.
Total Football was coined when the Dutch produced a generation of footballers with the technical and tactical versatility to play in any position. There has been a slow shift in cricket, but this year we may have witnessed the evolution of Total Cricket, with England in the vanguard.
Before England’s trip to Pakistan, I stated that they would need to adopt a more attritional style of play to deal with the lower bounce and possible turn of the ball. They completely surpassed that expectation. They have played with such freedom, not only to be more aggressive with the bat and in the field but also to think differently about the game.
They have brought into Tests a mindset that originated in the Twenty20s, which means a young batsman like Harry Brook is willing to come down the wicket very early in his innings to a bowler who can flip the ball both ways and smash him for six. It is a combination of brilliance, self-assurance, and the growing realization that there are no horizons in the modern cricket scene.
The end of 2022 has been spectacular for England’s Test team, but new obstacles lie ahead. When England last toured New Zealand in 2019, the two Tests were played on incredibly flat wickets, which made for a tedious experience.
Joffrey Archer was run out by a bowled ball. The New Zealand cricket team won the first Test by an innings and tied the second.
They will be considering what type of surface will give them the best chance of defeating an England team that has recently demonstrated its ability to win on flatter, drier surfaces, and I believe they would be best served by attempting to create conditions similar to those in England, with seam and swing.
It favors England’s bowlers as well as New Zealand’s, but it may be their greatest chance to put Stokes and his team on the back foot.
England may already be thinking about the summer and the opportunity to recapture the Ashes. Stokes and Brendon McCullum have assembled a very aggressive batting order that continues to attack. One aggressive, dangerous batter is struck out, and his place is taken by another.
Australia is somewhat more diverse. In first-class cricket, there are players like Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith who are not afraid to occupy the crease and bat long, and others like David Warner and Travis Head who like to play a few shots.
It is difficult to predict the winner at this point, but England may have the best chance if the ball is swinging and seaming, as it was in 2015 when Stuart Broad got eight wickets against the Australians at Trent Bridge.
Since Stokes took over as captain, England has appeared to have all the answers, but there will undoubtedly be challenging challenges in the future. One of them has spent the winter recuperating from a dislocated ankle and a three-part leg fracture. Jonny Bairstow must return to the team, but it is equally certain that Brook must remain.
I could see Bairstow returning as No. 1, No. 7 with the gloves, or anywhere else, given that this is a generation of players who are willing to shift about the order. Currently, nothing is definite about England, except that it will not be dull.