Ben Stokes' England are so audacious that even Pakistan fans applaud them

ricket - First Test - England v Pakistan - Pindi Cricket Stadium, Rawalpindi, Pakistan - December 4, 2022 England's Harry Brook falls as he tries to play a shot
ricket - First Test - England v Pakistan - Pindi Cricket Stadium, Rawalpindi, Pakistan - December 4, 2022 England's Harry Brook falls as he tries to play a shot

Meandering through the third innings was the conventional way to go in Test cricket. England binned that by scoring at more than a run a ball, to give themselves time to declare and take two wickets before the close of day four.

If England happen to lose this Test, for once not a word of criticism would be fair, whether of the declaration or the rest of their play. They have flown into Pakistan with some preparation in the UAE but without a warm-up match; they were hit by a virus and far from fully fit at the start; and yet they became the first team to score 500 on the first day of a Test match, let alone a series. Their Test cricket has become a beacon unto the nations.

In the past the norm has been for an England captain to let an innings run on for a few more overs before declaring, to be safe, and for his team to lose momentum in the process. Not Ben Stokes. As soon as Harry Brook was out, he kept his foot on the accelerator and made Pakistan bat again. His declaration gave England the maximum amount of time to win.

England's Harry Brook plays a revers sweep shot during the second day of the first test cricket match between Pakistan and England, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Friday, Dec. 2, 2022 - AP Photo/Anjum Naveed
England's Harry Brook plays a revers sweep shot during the second day of the first test cricket match between Pakistan and England, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Friday, Dec. 2, 2022 - AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

We are so lucky to be watching England’s Test cricket as it is now. Under Stokes and Brendon McCullum, England are combining the best of both worlds: they are giving us the best of orthodoxy, summed up in Brook’s cover-driving, and the best of unorthodoxy, summed up in all the novelties that England have brought into the five-day game from not only the T20 format but from their own imaginations and experiments in the nets.

Joe Root batted left-handed, if only for one ball, when he had made 52. Stokes posted a fielder on the boundary straight behind the bowler. Using the new ball to bowl bouncers is nothing new, but giving it to two spinners is. He has coaxed six wickets out of a rookie spinner who did not know he was going to play an hour before the start. Every convention has been challenged, but with expert judgment, so that the worthwhile ones have been reinforced and the worthless ones binned.

England are playing their 1,056th Test match and never have they performed with such verve: for certain they have never scored at such a rate as they have in both innings in Rawalpindi. The third innings used to be cue for meandering, and bolstering your Test average by finishing with an unbeaten not out: remember the Sydney Test when Graeme Hick, slowing down on approaching his hundred, was left stranded on 98 not out when Mike Atherton declared?

In a similar situation Brook, on 87 off 64 balls, swung hard, missed and was bowled by the 65th. He had a 120-year-old England Test record not merely in sight but within range of three or four hits: the 76-ball hundred by Gilbert Jessop in 1902. All Brook had to do was push singles but no, that would have robbed England of time and detracted from their chance of winning.

Irrespective of the flatness of the Pindi pitch, to score 264 runs from 35.5 overs was a superlative achievement. Pakistan were allowed to spread all their fielders around the boundary. Their leg-spinner could bowl round the wicket and into the rough outside the right-handers’ leg stump, and did, yet England had the answers: not one but many answers to the traditional way of drying up the runs.

Before the T20 format, the only way to score off a leg-spinner pitching into the rough from round the wicket was to sweep conventionally, exactly as Root did, for once, when getting caught at short fine-leg. Faced with this piece of problem-solving, Brook reeled off the possibilities against Zahid Mahmood.

Brook in his first innings had reverse-hit Mahmood twice in the three balls when he tried this most negative of tactics – and naturally the majority of Pakistan’s fielders were on the leg side, leaving the offside open for Brook to explore. In his second innings Brook chose to sweep, or to run down the pitch and then sweep, or to run down the pitch and hit straight. One was a drive for the ages, when he ran forwards, and towards the leg side, and deposited a leg-break back over the bowler’s head.

England's Ben Stokes, left, celebrates with teammates after the dismissal of Pakistan Pakistan's Babar Azam during the fourth day of the first test cricket match between Pakistan and England, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022 - AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)
England's Ben Stokes, left, celebrates with teammates after the dismissal of Pakistan Pakistan's Babar Azam during the fourth day of the first test cricket match between Pakistan and England, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022 - AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

It is ground-breaking and unprecedented, what Stokes’s players are doing. A few individuals have batted as audaciously at times, but no Test team has collectively done so. Again he got himself out by taking this audacity to excess, trying a shot in nobody’s repertoire, but in the process he must have emboldened not only Brook, who needs no encouragement, but Will Jacks to hit so freely on his Test debut that Stokes was able to declare at tea.

While we are at it, we should appreciate the other novelties too in this Test. The relations between England and Pakistan used to be the worst, the most acrimonious, between any two Test nations: they are now sweetness and light, partly because the sides have played with and against so many of their opponents: thus Brook and Haris Rauf have represented Yorkshire and Pakistan Super League franchises together. And partly because Stokes, reformed character that he is, is a chivalrous as well as utterly competitive leader.

The crowds too used to be silent in Pakistan when an England batsman played a decent shot or hit a boundary. Not any more. Another convention has been binned, and Test cricket is all the brighter for it. Indeed, we should all applaud the historic phenomenon which has been unfolding since May, when Stokes was appointed England’s Test captain.