Lord’s ready for right royal occasion as Ben Stokes begins England reign | England v New Zealand 2022
There promises to be a great deal of pomp and pageantry at Lord’s this week, if the preparations are anything to go by. With the Queen’s Jubilee apparently upon us, the union flags have been draped around the ground and the sound checks a day before the toss – deafening renditions of the national anthem over the public address system – point to an incoming avalanche of red, white and blue.
But for those well-heeled enough to afford a ticket or subscribe to Sky Sports all this will be secondary when players take the field at 11am. England versus New Zealand, the reigning world champions, over five days at the Home of Cricket? Few adornments should be required to make this a special fixture, even if MCC were busy decorating the place while trying to ride out the grumbles about pricing.
And, of course, this is the first step in a new journey for this England team after 12 months of pain, with Ben Stokes starting out his captaincy and Brendon McCullum having crossed the divide as head coach. The pair barely knew each other before Rob Key, the new managing director, threw them together but they appear cut from similar cloth. Certainly the messages they are preaching mark a return to the simple, earthy cricketing truism of taking it a Test at a time that seemed to get lost during the previous regime.
That it is the Black Caps first up for the Stokes-McCullum axis adds a further layer of poetic narrative, for those looking on at least. Stokes may have spent the first 12 years of his life on the South Island, his late father, Ged, played rugby league for the Kiwis, while his mother, Deborah, and brother, James, have made the 12,000-mile trip from Christchurch to watch in person, but any extra sentiment will be kept in check.
“I’m very proud of where I came from, and my heritage and family and all that kind of stuff,” said Stokes, looking relaxed at the first of what may be a good few pre-match press conferences to come. “But, you know, I’ve had the England shirt on over 200 times. So, at the end of the day, it’s England versus New Zealand and I’m English. In terms of any extra emotions, it would be the same if I was doing it against Australia.”
It was Australia, of course, who set in motion the changes which have led to Stokes at the tiller, the 4-0 Ashes hammering over the winter – followed by a dismal 1-0 defeat in the Caribbean – bringing an end to Joe Root’s five-years in charge. Stokes, who demonstrated an early divergence from his predecessor by bluntly calling out the ticket prices, said he is not a fan of the term “red-ball reset”, however, preferring to label this week a “blank canvas” for his players, be they old or new.
He and McCullum have opted for a similar palette as before and opted to name their final XI a day out. People often wonder why a team would show their hand to opponents before the toss but in this instance, with the bulk of the side well flagged – including returns for Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, plus Ollie Pope’s rise to No 3 – it was simply a case of letting the one newcomer, Matthew Potts, settle in.
A 23-year-old seamer from Sunderland who looks impressively fit and bowls a heavy ball, Potts has started this summer with Durham like a freight train. Stokes was on the field for three of the six performances that have returned 35 wickets so far and it was an ability to transcend the early season run-fest, plus a career-best seven for 40 against Glamorgan, that convinced the new Test captain that Potts was good to go.
Stokes said: “The one thing that really made my mind up about Potts was when he bowled us to victory against Glamorgan. He turned up on day four with a bit of a stiff side and someone in his situation, with Test selection coming round the corner, he could have just sat back and said: ‘No, I am going to just look after myself here.’ But he didn’t, he ran in and he won the game for Durham.
“That’s the attitude that sets you at the next level and makes you open your eyes that this kid is ready. He’s been phenomenal: he’s an athlete and everything I expect this team to be.”
Potts ahead of Craig Overton – with Jack Leach playing his first home Test since 2019 – means a long tail and, with issues over the top order a hardy perennial, much will come down to the experienced hub of Root, Jonny Bairstow and Stokes on what looks a beige, flat pitch. Root will also be adjusting to life back in the ranks but, unlike a good number to attempt this previously, it is a case of trying to keep the runs flowing from his bat after a personally golden 12 months. Stokes, who will not have an official vice-captain at first, intends to seek his advice only when required.
Stokes said: “[Root] is always going to be there offering support but also said he doesn’t want to feel like he’s getting in the way. I said the same to him: ‘Mate, just concentrate on your batting now, you don’t have all the extra responsibility on your shoulders. Don’t feel like you have to come to me, just concentrate on getting your runs.’”
The New Zealand side they meet can be viewed in one of two ways. The tourists have lost two pillars of their top seven through the retirements of Ross Taylor and BJ Watling, while Henry Nicholls makes it a third after contracting Covid-19. Trent Boult is a late arrival from India, Kane Williamson is battling for form after elbow problems and, as well as two drawn home series against South Africa and Bangladesh last season, they lost their last warm-up match against a County Select XI that featured one capped player.
But then it is worth remembering that last summer, as English minds got into a funk about rest and rotation, New Zealand made six changes to their XI at Edgbaston and still claimed a thumping win and the series 1-0. Will Young and Matt Henry, two of the architects, then stepped aside for the World Test Championship final that followed, demonstrating an enviably deep and ego-free squad at their disposal.
This is one of a number of Kiwi traits the hosts are unashamedly looking to replicate as, in the words of Stokes, they try to “make England great again”. Whether this goal is achievable or not is the great unknown but it starts with the bunting already up at Lord’s.