England v New Zealand: ‘Ben Stokes-Brendon McCullum positivity put to the test’
Back in the days when The Simpsons was worth watching, half-witted actor Troy McClure proudly told us he had starred in a self-help video called ‘Get Confident, Stupid’.
There might be copies scattered across the England dressing room (realistically, it would be loaded on to a tablet, no-one has videos anymore).
The early days of the Ben Stokes-Brendon McCullum era have been about rebuilding England’s confidence.
More than one player has spoken about new coach McCullum trying to make them feel “10ft tall”. Words like “aggression” and “positivity” have been liberally sprinkled here and there, but the new mantra essentially boils down to rebuilding the belief of a broken team.
Over the two days of their second Test as the leadership duo, Stokes and McCullum’s confidence-building exercise will have been challenging.
Yes, there were times when England were up against it during the first Test against New Zealand last week, but the five-wicket win at Lord’s was such a helter-skelter freewheel, there was barely time to breathe, let alone think.
to concede 553 after asking New Zealand to bat at Trent Bridge would have been difficult for even hardened teams to take.
That England reached 90-1 by the close on Saturday is already encouraging. Countless times in the recent past they have responded to the same task by rolling over to have their belles tickled.
At this point, it’s important to stress this is not a judgement on the competency of the England team. Just as last week’s win didn’t instantly fix a side that had won only one of its previous 17, so too a defeat here would not make them any worse than they have been over the past 18 months.
Similarly, it is no comment on the chances of McCullum and Stokes ultimately making England a force in Test cricket. It is far too early to say.
But it is certainly an examination of the new ethos, and an evaluation of what it means to play with confidence, positivity and aggression.
Confidence can take an age to build and seconds to destroy. It is all well and good for England to bond over daft games and penalty shootouts in training, but can they fall back on that when Daryl Mitchell is hitting the ball into the second tier?
How do you build the confidence of Jack Leach when he has gone 1,000 days between home Test wickets, or Matthew Potts, playing in his second Test and dropping the sort of catch that a spectator caught in her pint glass on the previous day?
What about Zak Crawley, who edges the ball more often than any other opener in the world?
Positivity is not limited to whacking boundaries, bowling magic balls or packing the cordon with six slips.
A batter can defend, leave or pinch a single with positivity. It can be a positive to string together a run of three maiden overs.
A plan in the field can be positively executed, just as England did when James Anderson enticed Michael Bracewell into an edge by hanging the ball outside off stump with a 7-2 field.
Aggression comes in many forms, not just snarling at the opposition (not that McCullum teams do that).
Whereas bowling coach Jon Lewis was adamant England were showing aggression by bowling first, it can be argued that the truly aggressive option would have been to back themselves to bat, come through a difficult first session, then make full use of what turned out to be a very flat pitch.
It feels like the third day in Nottingham will be an early indication of how far England have come in their short time under the new regime.
The conditions hold no demons, their batters are likely to have every possible advantage in their attempt to play England towards safety. Whether or not they can get somewhere close to New Zealand’s total, or fold in a morning of mayhem, will be telling.
For as well as Alex Lees and Ollie Pope batted in adding 84 on Saturday evening, both needed the luck of being dropped by Mitchell. With Pope in particular, it felt safer to watch him bat from behind the sofa.
Still, they remain. Lees with his highest Test score of 34, Pope having made a half-century in his new position at three. A big score for either man would do wonders for their long-term prospects.
Stokes has been keen to stress that the message given to the players will not change, regardless of the situation England find themselves in.
“It’s just a simple message and it’s something that we are trying to filter throughout everything that we do. Always look to be positive,” he said the day before the second Test began.
Indeed, but England’s positivity is likely to need some light and shade.
Back to The Simpsons. At the end of the same McClure episode, Lisa tells us “self-improvement can be achieved, but not with a quick fix. It’s a long, arduous journey of personal and spiritual discovery”.
England’s long journey has only just begun.