Fifty years ago, Britain’s postmen went on strike. For seven weeks you couldn’t send a letter – and the consequence was that London got used to motorbike couriers. Similarly, some of our lockdown habits will surely linger: working from home, meeting on Zoom, joining a friend for a walk rather than a meal. If you’re wondering what this has to do with cricket, the answer is it raises questions about Ben Stokes’s makeshift XI.
Eoin Morgan, the de-facto player-manager of England’s white-ball teams, rules with a rod of iron (just ask Alex Hales). He knows exactly what, and whom, he wants (ask Liam Plunkett). He doesn’t believe in cheap debuts (ask George Garton). For the series against Pakistan, Morgan simply cut-and-pasted the squad from the mismatch with Sri Lanka. And then he found that the best-laid plans of mice and men are now subject to the whims of Covid.
Stokes’s understudies could easily have been plucky losers, like so many Brits at Wimbledon. Instead they gave a gifted Pakistan team a trouncing, followed by a drubbing. The minute they won the series, Morgan was applauding on Twitter: “What @benstokes38 and the team have achieved is incredible.”
Yes, yes, Morgs, but what happens next? Who’s the motorbike courier in this story? For the T20s against Pakistan, England may well go back to their first-choice squad. In the words of Bob Dylan, though, things have changed. There are several conclusions to be drawn, and not just the obvious one that England have a deep well of white-ball talent.
First, Morgan is no longer indispensable. He remains a huge figure, England’s most influential player for decades, but Stokes’s team showed that Morganism can flourish without Morgan. They were fearless, they had fun, they kept calm and carried on blazing. In the second match they lost their batting stars from the first, Dawid Malan and Zak Crawley, for ducks, but Phil Salt and James Vince used attack as the best form of defence. “There was a moment where I did question what to do next,” Salt said, “whether to consolidate or take the game on … Right from the very start, it is something that Morgan has always been crystal-clear on. We take the positive option, so that decision was fairly easy.” A team with that clarity can cope with rotation.
Secondly, Stokes is a better captain than we thought. His previous stint, in the first Test against West Indies last year while Joe Root was on paternity leave, ended in defeat. Stokes was too gung-ho with the final XI, banking on Jofra Archer and Mark Wood’s pace on a slow pitch. He led from the front, making 89 runs and taking six wickets, but didn’t pull the strings. This time he has done less as a player – scoring 22, bowling only one over – and more as a leader. He pumped up the new recruits, oozed cheerful confidence and backed his bowlers by posting three slips, even four. If his first stab at captaincy went a bit Ian Botham, this was Steve Waugh with a smiley face.
Thirdly, England have found a new spearhead. A week ago Saqib Mahmood was just another fringe seamer; now he’s a prospective leader of the pack. After only four ODIs, he took the new ball and the lion’s share of responsibility. The big scalp in this series is Babar Azam, the world’s No 1 one-day batsman. Mahmood has surgically removed him, twice, for 0 and 19. Incisive and thrifty at the same time, he’s the second find of the summer after Ollie Robinson. With those two and Archer, England already have their next attack.
Finally, there’s someone else in the camp who filled Morgan’s shoes: Chris Silverwood. While Gareth Southgate was all over the front pages, his cricket counterpart quietly had his best week in the job. First he was selfless, leaving a family holiday to take the reins. Then, put on the spot for the first time since taking over selection, he made some shrewd choices: Salt to blast it like Bairstow, Malan to add composure, Lewis Gregory to swing it like Woakes, Matt Parkinson to tweak it like Rashid. He learned from his mistake in thrusting James Bracey into the Test team and went for a proper keeper in John Simpson. His unexpected faith in Vince was rewarded with a stylish 60, rather than the usual stylish 20.
Last week Silverwood turned a crisis into an opportunity, and now he can build on that by showing some Morganesque clarity. While the one-day squads have an embarrassment of riches, the Test side is just embarrassing. On taking over from Ed Smith, Silverwood abandoned the policy of picking all-rounders, pushing himself into a corner and ending up with no spinner. He played both Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad even though their strike rate has tailed off, which meant extra overs for Olly Stone – who duly pulled up lame.
Bosses are defined by their big calls. Southgate wrote off Wayne Rooney, sidelined Trent Alexander-Arnold and benched Jack Grealish. Silverwood has to decide whether England are better off on a boiling day in Brisbane with Anderson and Broad or Robinson and Mahmood. If you’re managing a team, you’ve got to be able to say boo to a GOAT.