NASSER HUSSAIN: England’s journey from Ashes flops to top of the pops has been a sensational ride 

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As England prepare for the final Test of the year, it’s incredible to think of where they were at the end of the Ashes in Hobart in January.

Back then, everything was doom and gloom, and it got worse after the defeat in the Caribbean. Not long after that, they had no captain, no head coach, no director of cricket, a part-time chairman and an outgoing chief executive.

The English game was in a pretty bleak place. It was depressing to be around it – especially as the team contained four players who will go down as England greats: Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Joe Root and Ben Stokes.

Ben Stokes has been a key feature throughout England’s tremendous campaign this year

One win from 17 Tests was just not good enough.

We have to acknowledge that the players went through a lot with Covid and bubble life. Given what Root had to deal with behind the scenes, it was remarkable that his own batting continued to thrive. But Andrew Strauss did well to appoint Rob Key as director of cricket, and Key got his appointments right, too: Stokes as captain and Brendon McCullum as Test coach, when everyone thought the Kiwi would be a better fit for the white-ball job.

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Would a combination of Gary Kirsten and Stokes have worked as well as Stokes and McCullum? There might have been some mixed messaging – and there’s none of that under this regime.

Quite simply, all the players have bought into a fearless brand of cricket. I interviewed Ben Duckett the other day, after Abrar Ahmed had taken seven wickets, and he was just relentlessly positive, saying they could all pick the mystery spinner. Then Ollie Pope said he no longer fears failure.

Beforehand, this side were getting weighed down by everything – Covid, bubble life, tactics, technique, the reaction of the media. Now they’re just going out and having fun.

English cricket looked in disarray after the disappointment in the Ashes in January

English cricket looked in disarray after the disappointment in the Ashes in January

One of the most remarkable aspects of it all has been the speed of the transformation, and for that Stokes and McCullum deserve a lot of credit. Stokes insisted he wasn’t going to play for draws, and he hasn’t – at any stage. If anything, he’s gone the other side of the line, saying that they’ll push No 11 Anderson out of the door if they need 20 to win with an over to go. The thing is, you can well believe it. Good for them.

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The rate of scoring has been a huge factor, even if they maybe went too far once or twice during the summer. But that was because Stokes wanted to show everyone what was needed. Broad said that during one net session, Stokes went after him every ball. At the end, he told Broad he wanted to play like that to send his team-mates a message: this is what we’re going to do.

It won’t always be easy, and there will be challenges next summer against Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood armed with the Dukes ball. England may get it wrong from time to time. But what team doesn’t?

What’s also been crucial, especially during this series, has been England’s ability to take 20 wickets. And that’s where Stokes’ tactical nous has come into play. I always felt he had it, but he really has been brilliant out in the field.

Stokes has truly showed his tactical nous has come into play throughout England's matches

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Stokes has truly showed his tactical nous has come into play throughout England’s matches

I’m not convinced their approach is going to transform Test cricket, because not every team can bring in batters reared on the white-ball game, like Duckett and Harry Brook. And other teams have players who do it differently – Marnus Labuschagne is No 1 in the world playing in his own style.

Equally, you wouldn’t expect someone like Kraigg Brathwaite, the successful West Indies opener, to suddenly start playing his shots.

McCullum will still value runs as the main currency, as Alex Lees found out during the summer. I can’t believe, for example, Alastair Cook at his peak wouldn’t get in this team.

But what McCullum and Stokes have done is transform English Test cricket by making it so much more enjoyable and watchable. It’s spreading the gospel and players from other countries are being asked about it. Some people, of course, are waiting for it to fail, and if it does, that would be the acid test for this team. But one thing is certain: they won’t be taking a backward step.

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