Having rolled the dice on an untested director of cricket in Rob Key, the England and Wales Cricket Board has kept gambling. Ben Stokes might have had only one first-class game as captain but he is a very popular and highly regarded player, and has already shown encouraging confidence in his leadership and his decision-making.
I think he can be an excellent leader for this England Test team, but my instinct was that he would benefit from having an experienced coach beside him, someone who could make sure the weight of his job does not become too much of a burden and impact his performances. Instead the dice have been rolled once again.
Brendon McCullum knows the ropes having been a captain himself and hopefully he will shoulder some of that workload, even if he has never coached a first-class team. But his appointment is another risk and though there will be a lot of excitement about the potential of the Test team’s new leadership, there are also a couple of obvious criticisms.
Andrew Strauss said McCullum “knocked it out the park” in his interview and he is not a man prone to making big statements, so I have no doubt the New Zealander was impressive. But there will be a lot of coaches out there, well qualified people with experience across different teams and formats, wondering how someone with such a slender CV got the role, particularly given some of the people he was apparently competing with.
Sometimes, as we perhaps also saw with the appointment of Key, a decision is made not to fixate on the credentials of a potential appointment, and it often helps to be friends with the right people. McCullum has simply not done a lot of coaching, which is extraordinary because he has been given an absolutely massive position in world cricket.
At a time in the English game when it feels so much is on the line, the Test team has been put into the hands of people with huge potential but no experience. Strauss said it was positive that McCullum, Stokes and Key share a vision of how they like cricket to be played. This may prove to be a huge strength, but it is also true that some successful organisations deliberately select management teams with different personalities within them, to try to make sure they have all bases covered. We all hope that these will prove inspired decisions, but it remains to be seen.
Whatever McCullum’s coaching experience, he has a record of taking a limited pool of players and getting the most out of them, of establishing a gameplan, getting buy-in from those around him and delivering results. I remember the first time I came across him, when I was on my last international tour in 2002. We played a match in Queenstown and the wicket was so green you could not distinguish it from the rest of the square. It was a low-scoring affair and he came out as a 20-year-old and played like it was a T20, putting together a couple of brief but eye-catching innings.
He became a prolific batter and in time an excellent leader, culminating in the 2015 World Cup where he was credited – along with some highly skilled bowlers, which a captain always needs – with introducing a different way of thinking in one-day cricket, which can be formulaic. Eoin Morgan then took over England’s white-ball team and basically nicked the template from him, with incredible success. As a result most people would associate McCullum with the white-ball reset and here he is overseeing the longer format.
How will his approach to the short-form game – go out, have fun, take the positive option – translate to Test cricket? I have never worked with a coach who does not want to have fun, but when it is the third day of a match in Kolkata, it is 34C and you have been in the field for four sessions, the game is not so much fun as sheer hard work.
There are different styles of Test cricket: it can be attritional or fast-paced, it ebbs and flows, you have to be focused yet relaxed, the ball can swing and it can spin. Technique is important, as is method. You can be inspirational, you can be a great bloke, create fantastic plans and blueprints, but a coach must also work patiently to improve players’ technique and concentration.
This will not be news to McCullum, whose New Zealand side had quality batters prepared to bat time, to get the shine off the ball, which allowed him to come in lower down the order and play with freedom. And he will know, as everyone does, how badly England need players with good technique who can bat at the top of the order and put in the hard work.
The decision to move Joe Root down a place from No 3 opens up another space there. It always seemed that when Joe moved up it was with some reluctance and McCullum will want his best players in their best positions and their best form. But if he could have stepped up to three it would have really helped the team because of their lack of reliable top-order batters. Stokes’s move to six is more encouraging: it should play to his strengths and allow him to release the handbrake, be the dominant player who can take a game by the scruff of the neck.
Key, McCullum and Stokes come together with England at a low ebb and surely the only way is up. Fans have realistic expectations but will want to see young players build on their experience and learn from their mistakes, Zak Crawley showing a bit more consistency, Ollie Pope looking less anxious, a nucleus of a successful side coming together. If they can deliver that, improved results should follow – and that will be when the fun starts.