What Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket was to the one-day game and the Indian Premier League (IPL) to T20 franchise cricket, the English Test team, helmed by captain Ben Stokes and head coach Brendon McCullum, is to Test cricket.
The oldest format of the game, oddly, is the last one to be revolutionised, fittingly, by the pioneers of the game. After a routine 4-0 Ashes rout in Australia and a shock 1-0 defeat in West Indies, England scampered to make leadership changes, which resulted in an urgent change in ethos. That the resultant 10 wins in 12 matches were still not good enough to keep England in the hunt for a spot in the World Test Championship (WTC) was a testament to how deep the troubles were.
Sportstar caught up with former England captain and current assistant coach Paul Collingwood on the sidelines of the Legends League Cricket Masters tournament in Qatar to get a ringside view of the winds of change blowing across Test cricket’s meadows.
Is England’s cavalier approach to Test cricket sustainable in the long run?
What Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes hope is that teams follow this approach because if Test cricket is going to survive, it’s important that we make it more entertaining. The skill level we take into Test matches, effort (we put in) to win the game and get the run rate up or take wickets – hopefully this will make Test cricket a lot more interesting to watch and bring back the followers. It is very important to world cricket that Test cricket survives. If you ask many players around the world, they’ll say that the hardest (format) to win a match in is Test match cricket. To be part of this upcurve of how English cricket is going is superb. As long as you do have the skill level in the team, which England does have at this moment, it (aggressive approach) can be very sustainable.
What’s your take on skipper Ben Stokes saying he would rather lose a Test than play for a draw after the first Test against Pakistan last year?
What a lovely approach to have - when you have a leader who is willing to lose a Test match. In the past, we have always worried about losing so much that we didn’t take the chance to win the game. When you have two leaders in McCullum and Stokes and they push that attitude of trying to win a Test match through to the players, it becomes very powerful. No matter what situation you are in, you are always looking to make time to win it. That Test match in Pakistan was a fine example of how to, on a flat and mundane wicket, actually still allow enough time in the game to go and win it. That declaration was a bold one. People were thinking they’re crazy going for this because it’s such a flat wicket. It’s amazing the pressure you can put the opposition under if they have a chance to win.
So, England wouldn’t have been too disappointed after losing a thriller to New Zealand by one run last month?
Of course, you are disappointed to lose a game. But when you see the amount of people that were talking about the game and watching it right down to that very last ball, you realise that that’s the job. That’s the bigger picture of making Test cricket more exciting. In my memory, that’s as good a game that I’ve been involved in. All the spectators, even the English fans who had come all the way to watch, said we have all witnessed such an amazing game of cricket. They were almost thankful. When you have an approach like this, you have to take the rough with the smooth. We are not always going to get it right, but when we do get it right, it is very good to watch.
The flipside of England’s approach in Test cricket could be players not always racking up big scores. Do they need some sense of security in order to continue in the same, aggressive vein?
Brendon has been very strong in his leadership with that. He is not expecting consistency and not asking for it either. He’s asking for match-winning moments and match-defining innings or spells. He’s asking for X-factor players who can create special things and moments. He wants innings that make people want to sit in their seats or turn the TV on and watch. That’s what we are after. The consistency side has gone out of the window.
It’s interesting that Test cricket has always been judged on stats - what’s your average, strike rate, what’s your strike rate as a bowler. In England’s dressing room at this moment, we are very much around what’s your impact on the game – how are you going to take it away from the opposition, how much pressure can you put on a certain bowler. This is what we judge our players on at the moment and not consistency necessarily. If you fail in an innings, you are going to get backed. It’s very important that you are backed longer than you would be normally. As a player, you need that - the sense of security and understanding from the rest of the players and management that this is your role in the side. It’s okay if you don’t get it right every time.
Is playing India in India going to be the litmus Test for England’s revolutionary approach in Tests?
The litmus test is going to be the Ashes. We have got five very important and exciting Test matches coming up against our biggest rivals in the game. That is going to be the first big test. We are coming up against a very powerful Australian side in a manner that they have never seen before. Of course, playing India in India is difficult. No matter what happens, we will have that same approach. There is no way we don’t have that approach, no matter what wickets we come across. It will be exciting to watch – win or lose.
How has your experience been playing in Legends League Cricket Masters and have you managed to maintain some of that intensity from your playing days?
It’s great to reminisce with your fellow players and the era that we played in during the Legends League Cricket Masters. Our bodies don’t move as well, physically we are not quite as fit, but our minds are still very much competitive. When you go out onto the park, you want to win and put a performance on. You feel the nerves and the adrenaline. That’s what you miss when you have played international sport. Even the little mannerism of watching Gautam Gambhir bat or Brett Lee run in to bowl, he might not be as quick as he used to be, but just seeing his action brings back all these memories of these great players.
There’s a legend, in his forties, who is not playing in Legends League Cricket Masters but still competing at the international level? What are your thoughts on the relentless James Anderson?
All these forty-year-olds who are playing in the Legends League are kind of in awe of what James Anderson is doing right now – keeping his mind and body in shape and having that motivation of going out there and performing. He’s getting better and better, he’s like fine wine, he’s maturing with age.