NZ vs Eng, 2nd Test – Brendon McCullum puts faith in CSK to keep Ben Stokes’ Ashes ambitions on track
Stokes, England’s Test captain, has found himself in the middle of a franchise versus country dilemma: insistent on fulfilling his £1.6million contract for Chennai Super Kings despite a left knee that requires constant management and rest ahead of the 2023 English season.
The issue has progressively worsened over the winter to such an extent that Stokes was only able to bowl two overs in the match and struggled to bat with freedom in the thrilling second Test against New Zealand, in which the hosts triumphed by one run to square the two-match series. Speaking at the end of the match at the Basin Reserve, he admitted to finding it “very frustrating” that he could not play a full part, particularly as the fourth seamer, but quashed the idea he would turn his back on the IPL.
“I don’t think he’s jeopardising it,” McCullum said. “The Chennai set-up is excellent in looking after their players and they’ve a very good medical team and he will be well looked after. The skipper has a strong mind and he knows how to get right for the big moments. His life is that, right? So I don’t have any concerns. In fact I look forward to watching him play in it and see, without captaincy as well, the opportunity to play cricket without worrying about everybody else, knowing when he comes back into the fold and leads us into the Ashes campaign he’ll have the bit between his teeth and I think we’ll be alright.
“He sees the big picture in everything, so I’ve no concerns that the skipper will be totally looked after. And I also believe that the Ashes is the script that the skipper is waiting to write, so he’ll be sweet.”
“I’ve got a tee-time with him [Fleming] tomorrow [Wednesday] afternoon,” McCullum said. “So I’ll be talking to him and making sure he looks after the skipper, but I know that Chennai set-up actually. I played in that franchise and they’re very good. They’ve got a good team and an outstanding leader in Flem.”
Up until now, McCullum has been reluctant to discuss the Ashes, often joking it is an unhealthy English obsession. However, with the series just three months away, he acknowledges excitement at seeing how a group that have won 10 Tests out of 12 take on such bitter rivals. England last won the Ashes in 2015 and the feeling as they come out of the winter is of quiet optimism they can reclaim it.
“I hadn’t thought about the Ashes, to be honest. I know everyone talks about it and obviously you’re going to be judged on your performance in the Ashes as well.
“But now I’m starting to go ‘the next series is the Ashes; that’s pretty cool’. I think this team has grown over the last eight or nine months. I think it’s become more at ease with how we’re playing, and it’s become more authentic as well. And I think it certainly does give ourselves the best chance of being able to topple a good Australian side. We know it’s not going to be easy, but I’m pretty sure that we will play a very similar style of cricket that we’ve played throughout the last eight or nine months. And with eight or nine months of development of that style under our belt, we should be hard to beat.
“Now we can really get excited about it, I think we’ve tried to to live in the moment rather than look too far ahead and make sure that we’re really present with what we’re doing. Now we have the opportunity to really start to plot and plan, and turn our attention to what’s going to be a pretty amazing time in the guys’ lives: an Ashes series at home against a good Australian side. So I think we’ll go into it with a lot of confidence. We know they’re a good side. We’ll work out who wins.”
“There is a lot of quality players to get in the XI. There will be opportunities. What we can’t do is try and crowbar people in. We need to take stock when the first Test arrives, what the fitness is like and how the guys are going and we will make the call from there. One thing we are not afraid to do is be brave in selection. If we think it gives us our best opportunity to win, that will be our mantra throughout.
“[Foakes] has been excellent, not just as a wicketkeeper which is world-class. He came up to the stumps to impact the game and got a wicket with Daryl Mitchell stepping back and pulling the ball up in the air. Little things like that make a big difference and, to me, show a real sign that Foakesy is trying to make an impact on the game, which is what you want from all your players. He nearly played an absolute hand at the end to get us across the line and he has played some vital hands right across the summer for us as well. He has really developed as a cricketer for us over the last nine months.
“Our team is set up at the top of the order for Zak to play like that. To become more at ease within that role, he needs to not try to catch form but, day in and day out, turn up with that same aggressive mindset and, if he does that, I have no doubt his talent will come out. He is one of those guys, the Australians from my conversations with Ricky Ponting, they respect him for the instinct and power he has at the top of the order and how destructive he can be. He is still a big player for us moving forward.”
“I thought it was epic actually. I know we came out on the wrong side of it – or the losing side of it – but in terms of what we set out to achieve at the start of the campaign as a side, I thought we’d certainly played our part in that. I think there’ll be millions – tens of millions – of people around the world that sat back and enjoyed that Test match.
“I’m just really proud of the guys and the fight that they’ve shown, the application they’ve shown and also the investment and how this team’s wanting to play throughout. So yeah, slightly disappointing finish, I guess from a result point of view, but I think it leaves us in a pretty good space moving forward for a pretty big challenge.”
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo