You wouldn’t describe Stokes or his teammates as cinephiles, although they often go to the cinema during Test match weeks to pass the time. Choosing the movie is usually pretty easy, although Stokes’ fondness for a horror movie can polarize.
Occasionally they have been inspired by the big screen. During the 2019-20 tour of South Africa, they were blown away by Sam Mendes’ “1917”, about the quest of two British soldiers who delivered a message to call off a doomed operation. It helped that Mendes, a cricket fan, named three characters after Stokes, Jos Buttler and Alastair Cook.
There weren’t too many references to cricket this time around – even if director Baz Luhrmann is an Aussie – but there was one moment that struck a chord with Stokes.
In the 1950s, Elvis had a reputation as a troublemaker for provoking uncontrollable frenzy with his stage antics during his performances. He was even threatened with jail time. One particular scene in the film tells of an incident where Elvis is warned not to perform any of his signature hip thrusts. Specifically: don’t even move a finger. Elvis enters the stage, runs ahead of him as he is stopped by security, poses and says the following: “There are a lot of people saying a lot of things. But in the end you have to listen to yourself.” He then raises his right hand and wiggles his little finger, before breaking into his usual act. Bedlam arises.
“Rock Stars!” replied the former captain. And off they went to win the game and knock down the house with a record 378 chase within 76.4 overs.
Stokes went to finger wiggles on day four as he took the four wickets to finish India’s second innings at 245 with a 377 lead. Root also celebrated his hundred on day five, encouraged by his chill-looking skipper on the balcony, the only way you knew he was next to it was because it was on the scorecard. He also had his pads on, but you just don’t remember with this match. Maybe he wore them for a laugh.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to feel or look like a rock star,” Root admitted as he sheepishly explained the celebration. “But for 10 seconds,” he added, “I might have done it today. That’s what the little pinky was about.”
Hands up – who would have thought Root, born, FEC, high elbowed, would ever call himself a rock star? But here he is, part of the gang, joining in on all the non-serious bits around the very serious bits. There at the house party, where they all have a good time, even though he makes sure the empties go to recycling on the way.
If there’s a warm feeling in English cricket right now, it’s because the heat is coming from that English dressing room. A room with a few big egos all pull together. And above all, seemingly having the most fun. Enough to get their captain to watch a movie, quote his favorite piece, and get the best hitter of his generation to scream he’s a rock star in front of those he led with a guard a few months ago, and then an in-joke to celebrate one of his more notable blows.
This success is based not only on private schools, bowling machines and achievement programs, but on heart, soul and genuine camaraderie. This isn’t Andy Flower’s grey, top-of-the-Test-ranking England or Steve Waugh’s Australia — and, well, it may never be. These are just some dudes who are dudes, handing kebabs to a pissed off human chain at 4am and somehow playing the best, most entertaining long form cricket this country has seen for generations.
It’s good to have watched them for the past month and get away with not really knowing what’s going on. This team has gone from one win out of 17 to four in a row against two teams that competed in last year’s World Test Championship. They have knocked down goals of 277, 299, 296 in the fourth inning and now an England record of 378. Just five times in test history has a team chased over 290 scores at a rate of 4.5 per over – three of them are England in the last month. Seemingly off the back of nothing more than vibes.
Now nets last as short or as long as players want. There is a start time in the interest of the organization as the opponents train before or after, but otherwise batters can bat as usual until they feel good. This also applies to match days. Where previously the team would strive to travel to the ground together to be on deck between 9am and 11am, they only need to be in the locker room half an hour beforehand if they don’t want to warm up (if they have for example already beaten in the match). Prior to this India test, a few messages had to go around reminding players of the 10:30am start, but so far no one has taken advantage of the lenient call time this summer.
Clearing the locker room of the usual fear, especially during a chase, was surprisingly easy. Language has been a big part of that, with Stokes’ positivity on Monday leading up to the fourth innings all about getting the total, none of these “look” fluff. As Lees said at the end of day four after turning 56, the players joked about Stokes winning the toss at the start of this match and said “he’ll have a chase”, that was the rule. Likewise, the revelation is that Stuart Broad has been groomed as a “Nighthawk”, ready to go out and beat borders in that same Stuart Broad fashion if England were to lose a wicket late one night when they were looking for a score, speaks of trying to break convention and laughs at it.
As withdrawn as he may seem from the outside, having only given one written interview to the media since joining in late May, McCullum has been an active part of it all. Perhaps the funniest nugget that has come up in the past month is that the Kiwi has a large bluetooth speaker that he uses to play his favorite music, be it on the team bus or in the locker room, where it’s amazing. enough on all day. It was at full volume in Edgbaston around 5pm on Tuesday, as the players and coaching staff drank beer on the balcony and in the outfield, scored by the likes of Springsteen and Bon Jovi. Is there anything more predictable than a McCullum playlist filled with nothing but power ballads?
During the Leeds Test, McCullum noted that he was sitting in the public bar of the team’s Marriott Hotel rather than the Executive Suite, with his guards, table service and discretion. He often sat at one of the larger tables, visible from the street, and talked to coaches or players who wanted his ear, with wisdom or just a few jokes, like an ordinary King Solomon.
So much of what England is doing right now can be reduced to the question, “Why?” Like curious kids, that’s been their starting point for any conversation, leading to the kind of search that occasionally has the “yeah, good point — why are we doing it this way?” provokes. On balance, the follow-up answers have improved things. The best has undoubtedly given us The Nighthawk, the less certain put director Rob Key in a bit of a quandary as he continues his search for an outfit to match the role, not seeing the need to wear a suit.
All this makes this England Test side more recognizable and, most importantly, more accessible. For so long the barriers have been lifted, the rules draconian and the dress code restrictive. Now this team seems to feel it their duty to offer something to everyone. They’ve said a few times that they want to bring more fans to Test cricket, and to be honest it seemed a little too altruistic. But even the most cynical must begin to crack. Because it works.
If you were lucky enough to witness the last day at Edgbaston, Headingley, Trent Bridge or whoever started it all at Lord’s you would have done it without paying a dime. Lord’s was an administrative twist, with Root completing that particular chase within 20 overs to entitle gamblers to full refunds. The rest, however, was as part of a buy-in from the respective provinces, which is all about getting more eyes on the game.
Amid all the beer and skittles, there’s one sample in this team that shouldn’t be dismissed. As Stokes said, echoing a phrase Jack Leach had said to him moments earlier: “A good way of explaining is that teams may be better than us, but teams won’t be braver than us.”
They have turned a big corner and are full of conviction. And perhaps the most compelling aspect is that, after years of hesitation, they have come to an important realization: why can’t testing cricket be fun?
Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sports journalist for ESPNcricinfo
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