Brendon McCullum thinks England have a captain in Ben Stokes they can be “really proud of” and admitted he has been slightly taken aback by how well the all-rounder has performed in the role.
Any hesitation before the summer about adding leadership responsibilities to Stokes’ already bulging on-field workload has been banished by the 31-year-old winning six of his first seven Tests in charge.
It is barely 12 months since Stokes was battling crushing anxiety and panic attacks which contributed to him taking a break from the game, which he candidly addressed in his recently-released documentary.
In ‘Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes’ he also spoke about his 2017 arrest in Bristol and eventual acquittal on charges of affray as well as the loss of his father to brain cancer in December 2020.
And while he has led from the front by averaging over 40 with the bat and under 26 with the ball this summer, head coach McCullum has been struck by Stokes’ ability to cajole the best from his team-mates.
McCullum said: “We’ve all seen the documentary and the pressures he’s had in his life, but where he’s at right now, the person he is and the captain he is, is someone we can all be really proud of.
“I thought he’d be good as a leader, but I didn’t realise he’d be quite as good as what he is. His own game is phenomenal, his leadership qualities are amazing and he runs through brick walls for the side.
“He’s not just been able to deliver a message but allowed the message to go across the entire group, and do it comfortably in a short period of time. Not too many people have that skill, but he’s certainly got it, and that’s why the guys have responded to him.”
While England’s results are on an upward curve, the Stokes-McCullum axis has also been responsible for a shift in approach, with an emphasis on positivity and uncluttered, simple thinking.
However, the former New Zealand captain insisted his role is understated, as he said: “I don’t really do a lot, to be honest. Just let the guys do what they’re born to do.
“I’ve had the benefit of a career in cricket as well, with the ups and the downs, and I had a young family early, and you get used to a bit of chaos at times. You find a way to deal with it.”
Ollie Pope has bedded in at number three and Ben Foakes is England’s undisputed first-choice gloveman but, while opening batters Zak Crawley and Alex Lees flickered, they did not wholeheartedly convince.
While McCullum offered the caveat that there are players on the fringes making strides, he pointed out England’s last successful top-order pairing was Sir Andrew Strauss and Sir Alastair Cook a decade ago.
McCullum said: “We’re very quick to judge sometimes some of the things that aren’t working as well. We’ve got to allow these guys the time and opportunity to develop.
“These are tough cricket wickets, really tough. The last two guys who nailed it at the top of the order are both called Sir in this country, so it’s not an easy thing to do.
“There are some very good players out there, and we’ve seen that with some of the guys who have come in. There are certainly some areas we can improve, but overall we’ve got to give it a resounding success.”
McCullum has thought about England’s next Test assignment: a three-Test tour of Pakistan, where conditions are likely to be very different to what they experienced this summer, but he emphasised the importance of reflecting on what they have achieved.
McCullum added: “You do plan forever in this job, but you’ve got to live as if you’ll die tomorrow as well. You’ve got to make sure that, while you do have an eye on what’s coming, that you don’t get too far ahead of yourselves.
“Pakistan we’ll deal with in time. For now, let’s enjoy what we’ve been able to achieve over the last little while. These summers don’t come around often, and these memories don’t get created easily.”
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