Panoramic shot as Root bowls to Carey with Australia at 209-7

Captains Fantastic

In The Ashes by Bill Ricquier

The 2023 Ashes got off to a terrific start at Edgbaston. It grabbed attention from the first ball, sent flashing through the covers for four by Zak Crawley, to the last when Pat Cummins secured a two-wicket victory for his side at around 7 pm on the fifth day.

The comparisons with the second Test of the 2005 Ashes, also at Edgbaston, generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest of all Tests, were almost uncanny. In both games 407 runs were scored on the first day. Australia’s target was 281 this time; it was 281 in 2005, when they lost by two runs.

There were some memorable individual performances, notably from Usman Khawaja, who batted on each day of the match with matchless grace and determination, Joe Root, who carried on from where he had left off in 2022, and Nathan Lyon, who took crucial wickets and was with his captain at the game’s pulsating climax; fitting redemption for Headingley 2019, when his fumbling in the field prevented what looked like an almost certain run out and enabled Ben Stokes and Jack Leach to complete an even more extraordinary Ashes victory.

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One senses that excitement about this series is approaching the same level as that amazing 2005 contest. This must be at least partly explained by England’s positive approach under Stokes and Brendon McCullum. The transformative effect on the team’s performance cannot be denied – even if they have lost their two most recent games against “senior” opposition, results which some might attribute directly to the new approach, which regards saving Test cricket as a higher priority than winning matches.

George Dobell, of The Cricketer, recently said, only half in jest, that he thought “Bazball” was designed for people who didn’t like cricket (rather like The Hundred). One can sort of see what he means. Ashes Tests would be a sell-out in England, certainly in London, whoever was representing the host country. But the popular imagination has certainly been captured in a way that has not been seen since the days of free-to-air television and that must be a good thing.

Another irrefutable fact is the influence of the two captains on the Edgbaston match. Of course captaincy in cricket is more significant than in most team games. Even so it is rare for that fact to be so demonstrably evident in the course of a match. Very occasionally a Test series occurs which is linked inextricably with the names of the captains (or at least one of them, as in the case of Douglas Jardine, and the Bodyline series). The best, perhaps the only real example is Australia versus West Indies in 1960-61, a magnificent series of compelling matches that will always be associated with the two captains, both legends of the game, Richie Benaud and Frank Worrell.

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If this series is going to continue to live up to its very high expectations, you can be sure that Stokes and Cummins will have a lot to do with it – assuming they stay fit, a tall order in this absurdly compressed series. Subject to that, these two great cricketers could make it happen.

Captains tend to be one of two types: those with an instinctive, natural command, and grasp of strategy and tactics, and those who lead by example. Mike Brearley was the classic example of the first; he had a very moderate record with the bat in Tests – he was a fine county player – but he was worth his place as captain alone. Gary Sobers exemplified the second type; no great strategist but as a player he could do everything himself.

When Stokes became captain there must have been a feeling that he was going to be a captain of the second type. He certainly would have been had he become captain earlier, as perhaps he should have. In fact he has turned out to be much more of an example of the first type. Of course he is still a major contributor as a player. At Edgbaston he made important, sensible runs in the second innings, and, although it was almost painful to watch him bowl, he took a wicket in each innings, and those wickets were crucial – Steve Smith in the first innings and Khawaja in the second. Yet one feels that even if Stokes was not fit enough to bowl, or even bat, his would still be the first name on the team sheet; that is how important his captaincy has become. Several Australian dismissals were the direct result of Stokes’ captaincy, notably that of Khawaja in the first innings, with the extraordinary umbrella field. You know his players would do anything for him.

Australia usually just pick the best player as captain and hope it works out, which it usually does. Ricky Ponting to Michael Clarke to Steve Smith was a classic Australian line of succession. Then came Sandpapergate, and the repair man, Tim Paine. Cummins is unusual only in that he is a fast bowler. He is probably the best fast bowler in the world. Bowlers have special challenges as captain. He seems to deal with those. There was a lot of criticism of his defensive field placing at Edgbaston; Cummins could ask his critics to look at the scorebook. He scored vital runs in both innings and took crucial wickets too.

It was of course in the last hour of this tremendous match that Cummins came into his own. Progress had been so slow that people were actually wondering if Australia were playing for a draw. Stokes had a tricky decision to make with regard to the new ball. He kept Root on and Cummins hit him for two sixes. Somehow one knew then that an England victory, which had seemed almost inevitable twenty minutes before, was not going to happen. It was a great piece of batting, and a striking assertion of leadership.

Stokes and Cummins: in the next five weeks we should see a magnificent duel.

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