NZ vs Eng, 2nd Test – Brendon McCullum believes in CSK to keep Ben Stokes Ashes ambitions on track

Brendon McCullum is confident that Ben Stokes’ involvement in the Indian Premier League will not jeopardize his participation in the Ashes this summer.

Stokes, the England Test captain, has found himself in the middle of a franchise versus country dilemma: he insists on fulfilling his £1.6m contract with Chennai Super Kings despite a left knee that requires ongoing management and rest ahead of his England season 2023.

The matter got progressively worse over the winter to such an extent that Stokes managed to bowl just two overs in the match and struggled to bat with freedom in the thrilling second Test against New Zealand, which the hosts triumphed by one run to level the two-match series . Speaking at the end of the game at Basin Reserve, he admitted he found it “very disappointing” not to be able to play to his full potential, particularly as a fourth man, but dismissed the idea that he would turn his back on the IPL.

last week, Stokes requested an early exit from the competition (which runs from March 31 to May 28) to ensure he is ready for the first Test of the summer against Ireland at Lord’s on June 1, if only if it feels it needs a longer entry guide. McCullum, as Test coach, has no doubt the 31-year-old will be right in for the summer, not only because he has full faith in the CSK set-up, which he has been a part of for two seasons, but also because he knows how much he means to the skipper of a series against Australia.

“I don’t think he’s risking it,” McCullum said. “The Chennai set-up is excellent in looking after their players and they have a very good medical team and will look after him well. The skipper has a strong mind and knows how to get things right for the big moments. His life So I have no worry. In fact, I’m looking forward to seeing him play in it and see, without a captain as well, the opportunity to play cricket without worrying about others, knowing when he’s back in the fold and leading us into the Ashes campaign he’ll have the bit between his teeth and I think we’ll be fine.

“He sees the big picture in everything, so I’m not worried the skipper will be fully taken care of. And I also think the Ashes is the script waiting for the skipper to write, so he’ll be sweet.”

Also, the presence of his good friend Steven Fleming in the CSK dugout reassures McCullum. Fleming, who was McCullum’s first international captain, has been in charge of the franchise since 2009 and has been in New Zealand throughout this series. He is in constant communication with Stokes about his fitness and other plans, and Stokes is understood to have asked for a leadership role at CSK, possibly as part of a succession plan for MS Dhoni.

“I have a crush on him [Fleming] tomorrow [Wednesday] afternoon,” McCullum said. “Well, I’ll talk to him and make sure he takes care of the skipper, but I know the Chennai set-up actually. I played in this franchise and they are very good. They have a good team and an excellent leader in Flem.”

Until now, McCullum has been reluctant to discuss the Ashes, often joking that it is an unhealthy English obsession. However, with the series just three months away, he acknowledges the excitement of seeing how a team that has won 10 Tests out of 12 fare against such tough opposition. England last won the Ashes in 2015 and the feeling as they come out of winter is a quiet optimism that they can claim it again.

“I hadn’t thought about the Ashes, to be honest. I know everyone is talking about it and obviously you will be judged on your performance in the Ashes as well.

“But now I’m starting to go ‘next series is the Ashes; that’s really cool’. I think this team has grown over the last eight or nine months. I think it’s become more comfortable with how we play. And it’s become more authentic as well. And I think it certainly gives ourselves the best chance of being able to upset a good Australian team. We know it’s not going to be easy, but I’m pretty sure we’ll play a very similar style of cricket that we’ve played over the last eight or nine months .And with eight or nine months of developing this style under our belt, it would be hard to beat.

“Now we can really get excited about it, I think we’ve tried to live in the moment instead of looking too far ahead and making sure we’re really present in what we’re doing. Now we have a chance to really start planning and designing and focusing us in what’s going to be an amazing moment in the men’s lives: an Ashes series at home against a good Australian team. So I think we’ll go into it with a lot of We know they’re a good side. We’ll find out who wins.”

As for the starting line-up at Edgbaston come June 16, that is hard to predict. McCullum came out of the winter with a better knowledge of all 16 players used in Pakistan and New Zealand, along with those who were part of the squads but did not see any action. His player pool is set to grow further, too, with Jonny Bairstow returning from a broken leg, along with bowling options such as Jofra Archer, Chris Woakes and Sam Curran returning to the red-ball race through work with white ball.

Bairstow is the most interesting of the lot. He was the man of the summer in 2022, with four hundreds in the first five matches under Stokes and McCullum before a horrific slip on the golf course ruled him out of the Oval Test against South Africa. His replacement, Harry Brook, has taken the world by storm, with four centuries in five matches this winter, giving him a batting average of 80.90 and a strike rate of 98.77.

While there is no guarantee that Bairstow will pick up his form from where he left off, provided his rehabilitation goes as hoped he is likely to return to the starting line-up. Much of the speculation in recent months has been about whether he will replace Ben Foakes (and in turn pick up the gloves) or Zak Crawley, who averaged just 29.30 over the winter despite starting a streak 10 innings with scores of 122 and 50.

However, McCullum said he would avoid putting players in unfamiliar roles for his own sake. In turn he defended Foakes, who almost won England the second Test, and reiterated Crawley’s strengths as a streaky player with a high ceiling.

“There are a lot of quality players to get into the starting line-up. There will be opportunities. What we can’t do is try to get the world inside. We have to take stock when the first test arrives, how the fitness is and how the guys are doing and we’ll make the call from there. One thing we are not afraid to do is to be brave in our choice. If we think it gives us the best chance to win, that will be our mantra throughout.

“[Foakes] he was outstanding, not just as a wicketkeeper who is world class. He got on the stumps to influence the game and took a wicket with Daryl Mitchell backing up and pulling the ball in the air. Little things like that make a big difference and, to me, show a real sign that Foakesy is trying to influence the game, which is what you want from all your players. He played almost an absolute hand at the end to get us over the line and has played some vital hands over the summer for us too. He has really developed as a cricketer for us over the last nine months.

“Our team is at the top of Zac’s class to play like that. For him to become calmer in that role, he has to not try to get fit but, day in and day out, show up with the same attacking mindset and, if he does that, I’ve got no doubt his talent will come out. He’s one of those guys, the Australians from my conversations with Ricky Ponting, they respect him for the instinct and power he has at the top of the order and how devastating he can be be. He’s still a big player for us moving forward.”

The next two weeks will be a period of reflection for McCullum. Defeat in Wellington dashed England’s chance of a 100 per cent winning record this winter, after a 3-0 success in Pakistan was followed by a 267-run win at Mount Maunganui in the first Test here. Nevertheless, the manner of this defeat underlined his aim to play exciting Test cricket.

“I thought it was epic actually. I know we came out on the wrong side – or the losing side – but in terms of what we wanted to achieve at the start of the campaign as a side, I thought it certainly played our part in that. I think there will be millions – tens of millions – of people around the world who sat back and enjoyed this test match.

“I’m very proud of the guys and the fight they showed, the application they showed and also the investment and how this team wants to play throughout. So yeah, a bit of a disappointing finish, I guess from a result point of view, but I think that leaves us in a very good place to move forward for a fairly big challenge.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo

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