England v New Zealand: Ben Stokes gets crash course in Test captaincy on bizarre first day

First LV= Insurance Test, Lord’s (day one)
New Zealand 132: Potts 4-13, Anderson 4-66
England 116-7: Crawley 43; Boult 2-15
England trail by 16 runs

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

For as much as watching England is regularly an exercise in absurdity, it was particularly special for this side to be both New England and Old England is the space of a couple of hours at Lord’s.

Neither captain Ben Stokes nor coach Brendon McCullum would have been naïve enough to think that bowling out New Zealand for 132 was the instant fixing of a broken team that had won only one of its past 17 Tests.

But even Stokes and McCullum must have been surprised at how quickly they were given a demonstration of the size of the task ahead of them.

From 92-2 to 100-7 in 28 balls of pandemonium, an astonishing collapse even by England’s standards. The only thing missing from the chaos was concussion substitute Matt Parkinson getting a police escort to the middle as England’s number 11, having started the day in Manchester before being summoned to replace the luckless Jack Leach.

It was undeniably entertaining, England making good on their promise to provide the sort of cricket that fans want to see after the national crisis of Lord’s not selling out any of the five days.

It was also a novel way to address the astronomical ticket prices, by attempting to make anything for the third day onwards worthless.

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A penny for former skipper Joe Root’s thoughts.

In England’s day of two halves, they bowled a full length and caught everything – they rarely did that when he was skipper – only to then bat like reckless vandals – they did that all the time when Root was in charge.

To start with the positives, England were excellent in exploiting the early movement on offer. Bar the posting of six slips, there were few glimpses into how Stokes will operate in the field, mainly because everything went the way of the hosts.

In fact, it may be more interesting to consider how Stokes and McCullum coaxed a noticeably fuller length out of old warhorses James Anderson and Stuart Broad, who Root had to criticise in public for not pitching the ball up during the Ashes.

“Brendon has come into the bowling group and said, ‘Don’t focus too much on economy rates, I want wickets, let’s try to get as many wickets as we can, as quickly as possible’,” said Broad earlier this week.

“‘Let’s have the mindset of where can I get an extra slip or short leg from, rather than being too defensive’.

It might mean something, or it might be nothing, but the early signs are that McCullum and Stokes have given an order that has been followed.

What they said to the batters, one can only guess. If it was “play as many shots as you like, because this team is all about nicking big drives outside off stump,” then it was another instruction followed to the letter.

In reality, McCullum had been keen to point out that he is not expecting England to ape a style that sees him hold the record for both the fastest century and most sixes hit in Test cricket.

“I’d never want anyone to play like I played the game,” said McCullum when he arrived in the UK last week. “That comes with an immense amount of disappointment at times.”

The disappointment was heightened here by the fact the nature of England’s collapse was all too familiar.

Zak Crawley edging one after playing nicely, like a slightly better version of James Vince? Tick. Ollie Pope, out of position, looking like a man batting on roller skates? You bet. Things falling apart after Root gets out? Of course.

Even skipper Stokes caught the disease, driving so far away from his body that his bat was in a different post code.

Stokes has been adamant about what his England team should look like.

“I want everyone to feel free under my captaincy,” he said on Wednesday, adding that the atmosphere will be “laid back, go and express yourself”.

He was also prepared for the prospect of England enduring more pain before they found a way to improve, even if he didn’t expect the first setback to come in such swift and dramatic circumstances.

“Everyone is very clear what me and Brendon see as the way for this team to progress, but it won’t happen overnight,” he said.

“We’ve got to be very clever and sensible about how we handle things and the language we use if things don’t go well.”

Now, the immediate challenge is to put that theory into practice, to get England back into a Test that they should be controlling, but are in a serious danger of losing.

This was Stokes’ first ride on the rollercoaster that threw his predecessors upside down and side to side.

Andrew Strauss won the Ashes in Australia, only for the closing of his reign to be marred by Kevin Pietersen’s text messages. Alastair Cook started by winning in India and ended by being beaten all over the same country. Root became the best batter in the world but was powerless to stop England’s ship from sinking.

Stokes arrives with a healthy dollop of life experience. Being hit for four straight sixes in the final of the T20 World Cup, almost losing his career because of a night out in Bristol, the recent death of his father and his break from the game last summer.

Given what he has gone through, he should be well placed to deal with the tribulations of the England captaincy, even if the job can become all consuming.

The first day at Lord’s was a crash course in what it is like to be England captain.

Stokes will hope it can not get any more bizarre, but knows that the ups and downs have only just begun.

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