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England's rise from the Ashes under Ben Stokes continues apace after historic Pakistan series victory

It was not all that long ago that English Test cricket was going through yet another crisis of confidence.

After a devastating 4-0 defeat in the Ashes last summer, England's Test team continued their slide, suffering a humiliating 10 wicket defeat to the West Indies in Grenada to lose the three match series 1-0.

In stark contrast to their soon to be all-conquering white ball team, England were at the bottom of the Test World Championship table.

The reasons were myriad, but too much emphasis on the short formats to the detriment of the Test team was the key takeaway.

Plagued by muddled selections among a rotating cast of dispirited players, England looked lost and rudderless, so hopelessly dependent on Joe Root scoring runs that whenever he failed, defeat was almost a certainty.

Between February 2021 and March 2022, England won just one of 17 Tests.

For the first time in their 145-year Test playing history, England failed to claim a series victory in their last five.

Change was essential and it was wholesale.

England appointed a new director, a new coach and a new captain in Ben Stokes to try and revitalise a team limping towards obscurity.

'Get ready for the ride'

Brendon "Baz" McCullum, something of a left-field choice, was named as coach to replace Chris Silverwood.

"In taking this role on, I am acutely aware of the significant challenges the team faces at present," McCullum said.

"I strongly believe in my ability to help the team emerge as a stronger force once we've confronted them head-on,".

"I'm no stranger to bringing about change within a team environment, and I can't wait to get started."

Rob Key, the director of the England Cricket Board, gave a fair hint at what to expect from the innovative 101-Test New Zealand batter.

"Time for us all to buckle up and get ready for the ride," Key said upon McCullum's unveiling as new coach.

"He has a recent history of changing cricket culture and environments for the better, and I believe he is the person to do that for England's red-ball cricket."

How prophetic those words have since become. 

Wins after wins after wins

England, from one of their lowest Test ebbs, have now won nine of their last 10 Tests.

Since the March humiliation in the Caribbean, they have thumped world champions New Zealand 3-0, thrashed India in a one-off Test and beaten South Africa 2-1 and now, the crowning glory, have beaten Pakistan 3-0 away from home.

England had only ever won two Test matches in Pakistan in the previous 61 years, encompassing 28 Test matches.

No team has ever beaten Pakistan 3-0 in a three-Test series in Pakistan.

Those numbers barely scratch the surface of what England has been able to achieve in completing those victories.

England's resurgent home summer was simply incredible, even accounting for the home conditions.

Against New Zealand, England chased 299 in the second Test on the final day thanks to a stunning 92-ball 136 from Jonny Bairstow — part of a 179-run partnership with Ben Stokes in just 121 balls.

That was England's fifth-highest successful run chase in Tests.

If England fans thought that was good, comfortably chasing 378 runs to beat India at Edgbaston was the cherry on top of the cake.

Lest we forget, India and New Zealand had not long before played out the inaugural World Test Championship final — the two best Test teams in the world swatted aside like club teams.

The way England play means there will, inevitably be failures.

An innings and 12-run defeat at Lord's to South Africa bought the whole show to a juddering halt, only for England to record two thumping victories in the next two matches in Manchester and at the Oval.

Extraordinary Pakistan series a genuine triumph

However, the first genuine test of the playing style "Bazball" would be overseas in Pakistan.

It was a test England have passed comprehensively.

Take the first Test in Rawalpindi, on a pitch labelled "embarrassing" by Pakistan Cricket Board chief Ramiz Raja and given a "below average" rating by match referee due to the lack of assistance on offer for the bowlers. 

England scored 14 runs in the first over and never looked back, plundering 4-506 by the close on day one — the most runs ever scored on the first day of a Test match and, incredibly, they did it in just 75 as opposed to the usual 90.

The following day, when England passed 600 in 90.2 overs, they became the fastest team to reach that tally in a Test by a whopping 33.2 overs.

England batted for 136.5 overs in Rawalpindi and outscored Pakistan, who batted for 252 overs, by 74 runs.

The 1,768 runs scored in the Test was the most in which a positive result has been possible.

The two occasions in which more runs have been scored were both in "timeless" Tests also involving England against South Africa at Kingsmead in 1939 and the West Indies at Sabina Park in 1930.

Despite those Tests being officially timeless, they still ended in draws when England needed to catch the boat home.

The rate at which England have been scoring is the key.

In their last ten Tests, England have scored at an average of 4.77 runs per over.

In the same time period, albeit from fewer matches, Australia has scored at 4.05, India 3.50, New Zealand 3.26 and Pakistan 3.09.

During the 17 Tests of discontent for England, they scored at a rate of 2.89 runs per over.

It's not just attacking with the bat where England have made the difference though.

A huge factor in the turn around has been the partnership between McCullum and his new skipper, Ben Stokes.

Stokes rising to the occasion

Stokes is arguably England's most mercurially talented player since Ian Botham, and is a Test player in the mould of McCullum himself.

Perhaps no player in English cricket's history has shouldered the burden he has, as talisman for T20, ODI and Test team.

Nobody seems to have been able to pump out match-winning performances across so many different formats over the past four years.

  • Destroy opponents in the 2019 ODI World Cup? Tick.
  • Complete an Ashes miracle at Headingley in 2019? Tick.
  • Hit the winning runs at the 2022 T20 World Cup? Tick.
  • Lead England to a stunning Test turnaround? Tick.

"Ben Stokes is the perfect character to inspire change around him," McCullum said when appointed earlier this year.

It appears to be a perfect match.

"I didn't realise me and Baz would be so aligned," Stokes told Sky Sports after the series win in Pakistan.

As both men push the England players to be themselves and play their games with confidence, the results have followed.

"I think when you take the burden off individuals and the team, you see players excelling and showing more within themselves," Stokes said.

"The ambition to win and play an entertaining brand of cricket, like we're going to do, is going to override any fear of failure.

"So the greater that ambition is to win … it just takes [the pressure] away.

"Releasing that failure and fear off everyone is why we've produced the results and the way we've gone about it."

It's evident in the way he plays — Stokes attempted to win the third Test with a six that would take him past McCullum on the list of all time leading Test six hitters, and looked up at the sheds with a grin when the ball plugged in the Karachi outfield.

"You don't accept getting out, you just accept that getting out is part of batting."

Smiling, joking, joyful cricket in the sometimes over-serious world of international sport.

And Stokes captains the same way, fearlessly.

In Pakistan in particular, he has been setting some incredible fields, inviting batters to take risks by leaving space and going all out for attack.

Few edges fall wide of the slip cordon when England play — mostly because to do you you'd have to edge it to point, such is the way Stokes packs them in.

His declarations are bold and forthright — England invited defeat in the first Test by giving Pakistan four sessions to chase 343 runs but he backed his bowlers to make the difference, and they did.

Captaincy clearly suits Stokes too.

Where others falter under the weight of expectation — even Root saw his average suffer, falling from 52.81 to 46.44 when encumbered with the shackles of captaincy — Stokes is embracing the risk-taking approach so suited to his own batting ethos.

Stokes has captained England 12 times now and, in that time, his batting average has improved from 35.76 to 37.81.

A small sample size, for sure. But the portents are good.

England travel to New Zealand in the new year, before welcoming Australia for a home Ashes series.

England have not won the Ashes since 2015, although did draw 2-2 at home in 2019.

This ultra-attacking approach will doubtless lead in some mammoth defeats — you can't just swing the bat against bowlers of the quality of Cummins, Boland, Hazlewood, Lyon and Starc — but you get the sense that England don't care.

They're happy to take the rough with the smooth, risking defeat to chase victory.

It might be too bold a claim to suggest it is an approach that will save Test cricket — that would take a wholesale funding restructure that the big three will be loath to entertain.

But then again, all-action entertaining cricket, where you're just as likely to see a team score 500 in a day can't hurt it.

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