(AFP Photo)LONDON: As England celebrated destroying South Africa by nine wickets to secure a 2-1 series success on Monday, their sixth win in seven Tests of the most glorious Test-match summer, it took something of a leap to remember how quickly things have turned around.
When they trudged home from a dispiriting tour of West Indies on the back of a 10-wicket series-losing defeat in March, they had managed one win in 17 Tests and an exhausted Joe Root stepped down as captain.
To say the arrival of his replacement Ben Stokes and new coach Brendan McCullum transformed the team would be one of the greatest understatements in sport.
In years to come psychology students will surely study “England cricket 2022” as the most astonishing example of how a change in mindset can transform performance in a largely unchanged group of players.
Both men promised a no-fear, all-out attacking approach with McCullum’s credo of “walk towards danger” aligned with Stokes promising to make playing for England fun again.
The new era got underway with an amazing 3-0 series win over New Zealand, England’s first home series whitewash for 11 years, but it was less the results than the manner of them that suddenly got the world of cricket taking notice as the team scored their runs at a national record 4.54 per over.
With a rejuvenated Jonny Bairstow leading they way they successfully chased 277 at Lord’s, 299 at Trent Bridge and 296 at Headingley – and all were chalked off with such aggressive intent that failure never looked on the cards.
This came a year after Root’s England had declined to even make an attempt at making 273 in 75 overs to beat New Zealand.
The change in attitude was epitomised in the second test where New Zealand posted 553 in their first innings and instead of digging in and playing safe England came out swinging to score 539 on the back of Joe Root’s masterful 176.
Faced with 299 to win they achieved it with ridiculous ease, Bairstow leading the way with a blockbuster 136.
Once that series sweep was in the bag they polished off India by seven wickets in a one-off test.
The question of whether their high risk “Baz Ball” approach would stand up against South Africa’s feared pace attack looked legitimate as they were battered in little more than two days in the first Test.
Stokes and McCullum had warned that fans would have to accept some failures along the way and duly turned things round emphatically with a massive innings victory in the second Test.
The final Test of the summer’s wild ride was true to form, as the teams ripped through each other at one-day pace when 17 wickets fell on the first day and 13 on a crazy second before England polished it off on Monday.
“Win or lose we wanted a result from the last test of the summer,” said Stokes, whose swashbuckling play and personality now shines through every aspect of his team.
“It is a very, very special thing that we’ve managed to achieve this summer but it’s not just about the 11 guys out in the field who just have to believe and buy into a new way of playing. It’s about everybody around you, the language in the dressing room by the players, the coaches – everyone’s really taken to it like a duck to water.”
That focus on process rather than the outcome was key to the year’s success but underpinning it all was Stokes’ and McCullum’s ability to bring joy and remove fear.
“I think something Brendon and I have done really well is taken all the external pressures away. It’s been a big change,” Stokes said. “I’ve absolutely loved it and really enjoyed the way in which everyone has really just had fun.”
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