When New Zealand and England get the northern Test summer underway at Lord’s on the second of June, it will be, at first, easy to imagine that not much has changed. After all, it was on the very same day of 2021 that the same two sides played the first Test of that summer. However, any feelings of déjà-vu will likely be dispelled at approximately 10:30 on Thursday, when Ben Stokes – England’s newest, and eighty-first, men’s Test captain – will meet his opposite number in the middle for his first toss since being appointed to the role permanently in April.
Indeed, so much has happened since England and New Zealand played out a slightly dull draw at Lord’s last year that it already feels like a different era – not least because Lord’s was this time able to offer tickets for a full house, although a combination of the Platinum Jubilee, and ticket prices touching £160, have meant that there will likely be more than a few empty seats this time around as well.
That last match was a disappointing affair, a timid draw in which a weak England team betrayed its own limitations in failing to attempt to chase 273 off 75 overs – a display that left fans’ confidence in the England team badly shaken. Although the agonising defeats that followed that match will linger longer in the memory, England’s game management in what was the first game in front of spectators in almost two years proved a damaging misjudgement; had the players been anywhere other than the drowsy surroundings of a sunny Sunday afternoon at Lord’s, they may well have found a few boos mixed in with the polite applause that was given when a draw was finally agreed.
However, if there is any leadership team designed to ward off fears of a repeat of that match, it must be Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, the latter the new red-ball men’s head coach. The former is England’s Superman, fresh off setting the record for most sixes in a County Championship innings, the man behind some of cricket’s most exciting and dramatic innings of recent years; the latter was for a decade New Zealand’s most explosive player, a man who scored the quickest Test hundred of all time.
Both too have a good template for the future. Each will well remember another, very different encounter between England at New Zealand at Lord’s – a thrilling match in 2015 that began with England reduced to 30/4 and ended with a 124-run win. McCullum was then New Zealand’s captain, and suffered the ignominy of being dismissed first ball by his new captain; Stokes was player of the match, with the fastest Test hundred Lord’s has ever seen to show for it. Despite the loss, the example that McCullum’s captaincy provided on that tour has been credited with launching the England team on a run that reclaimed the Ashes later that summer.
Now, seven years later, England’s eyes will be on Brendon McCullum once again. There are, of course, no guarantees that a match like that will be repeated, but the combination of a new coach and captain beginning their jobs together is rare enough to be exciting. How the two work together will go a long way to defining the Test team’s new dawn – and, with each determined to focus on the present, and with each possessing a mandate for change and a reputation for a quick-scoring, white-knuckle cricketing philosophy, Test cricket under the Stokes-McCullum regime – wherever it takes the flawed and fragile team that they now lead –will certainly be worth the watch.
Image: CC 2.0 – John Sutton via Geograph