Freewheeling England lead the way to Total Cricket | Mark Ramprakash

II just went to India with the Harrow School cricketers, where I coach. There are some very strong players and a bit of depth in the first team at the moment which means I’m lucky to be able to rotate players.

I always encourage young players to be versatile – you want athletic cricketers who hopefully can contribute with bat, ball and on the pitch – and recently the talent and flexibility of the team m gave me the leeway I need to mix the side up and give people more opportunities. Of course, it’s one thing to do it with a school team and quite another to see him in a test team, but England seem to be taking it even further and really challenging traditional cricketing stereotypes.

During the three tests in Pakistan Ben Stokes opted for a spinner to open the bowling alley with the new ball. Such a tactic was repeatedly used ad hoc on a rotating track, but with England it became policy, playing out in three consecutive matches.

Ollie Pope kept the wicket for England Under-19s but didn’t for Surrey, yet he jumped into this role when the circumstances called for some lateral thinking and he did a competent job.

Ben Duckett doesn’t usually open for his county. Not so long ago batting at the top of the order was considered a specialist position, especially in top class cricket, but again the convention was challenged, the player adhered to it and it has so far proven to be extremely successful. Most notable of all, 18-year-old rookie spinner Rehan Ahmed hit at #3 in the final rounds of the series.

I remember Graeme Hick being asked if he wanted to open and he was adamant that he preferred to hit at number 3. In my generation, players were superstitious about their numbers and reluctant to move in order, and often felt like a fish out of water when forced to. But in white-ball cricket, players have become accustomed to changing positions and have now adopted this attitude in first-class play.

When the Dutch created a generation of footballers who had the technical and tactical flexibility to play in any position, they became known as Total Football. In cricket there has been a gradual change but maybe this year we have seen the evolution of Total locustwith England in the lead.

Before England went to Pakistan I suggested they should adapt to the attritional style of cricket required there when it comes to a weaker bounce and maybe a turn. Well, they completely blew that out of the water. They played with such freedom, not only to be more aggressive with the bat and on the pitch, but to think about the game in a different way.

Harry Brook beats for England
Harry Brook is booming thanks to the new mindset within the English setup. Photo: Anjum Naveed/AP

They just brought to testing a mindset that started in the 1920s, and that means a young hitter like Harry Brook is happy to go down the wicket, very early in his innings, to a guy who can turn the ball back and forth, and hits him straight for six. It’s a combination of skill, confidence and the growing realization that the modern cricketing landscape is boundless.

The end of 2022 has been fabulous, but new challenges await the English test team. I was there on England’s last tour of New Zealand in 2019 and it was so boring due to the two Tests being played to ridiculously flat wickets. Jofra Archer was knocked to the ground. The Kiwis won the first test by a sleeve and drew the second.

They will now think about what type of surface would give them the best chance of beating an English side who have just shown they can win on flatter, drier surfaces and I think they better try to create the conditions closer to England, with seam and swing. It suits the England bowlers as much as the New Zealanders, but it is perhaps their best opportunity to put Stokes and his team on the back foot.

England’s thoughts could already be drifting towards the summer and a chance to reunite with the Ashes. Stokes and Brendon McCullum have created a very offensive batting formation that keeps attacking you. You take out an aggressive and dangerous hitter and another spell to replace him.

That of Australia is a little more varied. There are players like Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith who in top-class cricket aren’t afraid to occupy the crease and beat long, and others like David Warner and Travis Head who are looking to play some strokes. It will be a fascinating series, and it is difficult at this stage to pick a winner, but England’s best chance could be if the ball swings and squeezes, conditions like those in 2015 when Stuart Broad took eight for 15 against the Australians at Trent Bridge.

Since Stokes took over as captain, England seem to have had all the answers, but there are certainly tough questions ahead. One of them spent the winter sitting at home recovering from a dislocated ankle and a broken leg in three places. Jonny Bairstow must return to the team, but it is also clear that Brook must stay. It’s just as well that it’s a generation of players happy to move in order, because I could see Bairstow returning to No. 1, No. 7 with the gloves, or anywhere in between. With England these days, nothing is certain – except that it won’t be boring.

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