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South Africa in England 2022


“It’s the last time I will ever write on a whiteboard, because I needed to ask how to spell ‘environment’.”

Who’d have thought we would see the day when Ben Stokes is at the front of the class, pen in hand, not writing lines on a board. Instead, here he was on Sunday in the home dressing room at Lord’s, giving his teammates a refresher of the values outlined and abided by during the first four Tests of the summer. Values created in his own image that led to four bombastic wins against New Zealand and India and re-instigated a nation’s love for Test cricket.

“I don’t think it was a necessity,” said the men’s Test captain on the meeting, almost regressing to the cool kid who didn’t want to be seen as the square. “It was a case of getting everyone back together and going over, in smaller detail what we spoke about before we played that first game against New Zealand.

“When we get together as a group we have our environment, our way of playing and getting that message across to everyone that we are back in this dressing room with our way of playing and thinking about the game.”

All present were aware of how important this session was. The 43 days between the last day of the India Test and the first day of the South Africa series at Lord’s on Wednesday have felt twice as long. But even packed to the brim with the demoralisation of limited overs series against India and the Proteas and the distraction of the men’s Hundred has been an anticipation of getting back to the five-day stuff. And in the 10 minutes that Stokes spent up there in front of the whiteboard, the mood in the room was of a group of players and staff glad to be back in each other’s company and well aware of how they will continue to extol the virtues established at the start of the international summer.

In a different era, certainly under a different captain, this might have been a long, more numbers-orientated exercise. It is wrong to assume this is a group who aren’t bothered by data, especially when coming up against a Proteas side with plenty of new faces. But this is a squad that has, ultimately, been brought out of their shell by focusing on their personalities and strengths rather than their statistics and weaknesses. Where there might have previously been a check on the robustness of the algorithms, now there is a top-up of the good vibes.

Importantly, though – the best way to test the robustness of “good vibes” is by exposing it to bad ones. Finally, after a relatively docile three Tests against New Zealand, and a one-off anomaly against India comes three against a South Africa side who simply have no time for England’s gap-year levels of rediscovery of self and purpose.

Despite messages from the hierarchy within the South Africa camp not to be drawn into discussing the dreaded “B-word”, players and coaches have been coerced into addressing it in their various media commitments over the last month. Captain Dean Elgar, fiery quick Anrich Nortje and grizzled coach Mark Boucher have all had their say – they’re not fans – with Boucher taking the lighthearted route, pre-empting questions in Monday’s press conference by saying anyone who mentions it needs to do a shot of tequila. And thus, he got off lightly, with only two questions relating to the buzzword. Elgar’s presser on the eve of the first Test brought a few more. By now the Proteas have sipped right down to the scorpion.

There is a lot to praise of the mood around this England side, particularly how it has been maintained during this Test hiatus. A format that was once a grind now feels like a laugh, even for a 40-year-old like James Anderson who has seen it all but still feels a unique urge in his 20th home summer: “It feels like we can carry on doing special things in the future. So you want to be around that as much as possible.”

Since playing his last competitive match on July 19 – his ODI swansong – Stokes has kept a few plates spinning. Beyond resting to ensure his body – specifically left knee – was primed for the rigours of three Tests in four weeks, there have been regular check-ins with those under his watch or others wanting to be. There have been encouraging messages for performances – both in private and over Twitter – as well as checking in on the likes of Zak Crawley who left the first portion of the Test season with a few more doubts than the rest. Even those currently injured who have yet to play in this revamped team, such as Mark Wood and Jofra Archer, have had a check-in from their captain.

Even without the captaincy, Stokes would probably have done all those things as the senior man. But there is clearly a growing sense of acknowledgement from him that he is the key part of all this. He has quietly become one of the most powerful voices in English cricket and appreciates the clout he now wields.

During a County Championship match between Durham and Middlesex at Chester-le-Street at the end of July, Stokes mentioned that Mark Ramprakash, former England batting coach, now a consultant at Middlesex, picked Stokes’ brain for the benefit of those under his care. “He (Ramprakash) was asking me what he needs to tell his players about what we want to see from players to get noticed,” revealed Stokes.

Head coach Brendon McCullum and managing director Rob Key did as much last week with the Lions, along with assistant coach Paul Collingwood who assumed the main coaching role. A debrief at the start of the week of their tour match with South Africa, along with conversations throughout, inspired an innings-and-56-run victory that suggests the next crop are all in.

“[It’s about] not just keeping everything in our dressing-room here, because at the moment if lads want to get into this England team it’s unfair for us not to deliver the message to those guys who are representing Lions.

“If you’re leaving lads unsure about what’s expected of them to get into the team, that’s unfair on players because we have a certain type of way of playing and everyone trying to push for this England team needs to know that.”

A wider buy-in is essential if this mindset is to last – there’s a reason the most “successful” cults have the most followers. And from Stokes’ sermons alone, he can gauge there is “more excitement than normal” because players now won’t get a “slap on the wrist for playing a stupid shot”. It is the exact kind of rhetoric that is music to the ears of batters up and down the country.

All told, it is not for South Africa to believe. But it will be wrong to totally dismiss their annoyance as refusing to address what England are doing.

So much of what the hosts have concocted is built on forgetting their doubts, moving away from conservatism and ignoring risk. Ultimately, disregarding the three aspects of this format of the game that have made some legends and destroyed countless others.

Over the last month, South Africa have been quietly pinpointing ways to make England acknowledge them once more. And perhaps one of the key weapons at their disposal is that, for all the love from the home fans, there remains a typical British cynicism that is never too far from the surface. They saw that first-hand during the limited-overs series. Victory in the T20s and a 1-1 stalemate in ODIs led to questions over Jos Buttler’s captaincy and a sudden apathy towards a charismatic white-ball team. A Test side that came into this summer with one win in 17 has shakier foundations and much less credit in the bank.

“What I will say is they’ve had more time to prepare than New Zealand or India have, because they’ve seen what we’ve done in four games,” said Stokes, when asked if South Africa carry any fear. “They might have more ideas as to how to stop Rooty (Joe Root) or Jonny (Bairstow) when they get going.”

This is a rivalry that has always had plenty of niggle to accompany the hard-fought cricket. And on the eve of what should be another cracker to add to its long history, as both Stokes and Elgar speak of only being concerned about what they themselves are doing, it is amusing to think of this as a battle to see which is the least bothered by the other. With all the talking done, we’ll finally get our answer.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo



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