Making Memories for England

Ali Yaqub for The Players' Tribune

हिंदी में पढ़ने के लिए, यहां क्लिक करें.

Right, I don’t want to start off on a negative note but there’s something I need to ask, as the England Men’s Test Cricket captain. And this goes for coaches, club captains, commentators, fans, everyone watching cricket — especially as we approach the start of the Ashes this summer.

Can we stop using the phrase: “That’s a bad shot”?

I get why we all do it. Cricket’s a bit weird in some ways. It can be a very critical sport. Everything is focussed on dismissal, right? The outcome defines the worth of each action. So, if a batter tries to play a big shot and it doesn’t come off and they get out, it’s easy to say the shot was bad. 

I hear it a lot. 

“Oh bad shot. What’s he doing that for?”

“Bad shot, that.”

And I’m like, But was it? Really?

The shot choice is only ever bad when it’s out. You might try the same exact shot at another ball, catch it sweetly and it sails over the rope for a four or six, and then no one will say anything.

It’s only ever a bad shot ‘cause it was out. Worrying about making mistakes or having a fear of getting out creates a negative mindset. It breeds that bit of fear. As a player it can make you second-guess your instincts, if you think you’re gonna get pulled up on it just because what you tried happened not to come off in that one moment for whatever reason.

Ali Yaqub for The Players' Tribune

Anyway, that’s my mini rant over … but the point is this is one of the key things we’ve been working towards in the England Test team. We want to create an environment where everyone has the freedom to try things without fear. I know it hasn’t always been that way, even though we’ve always had the ability.

We want our guys to feel that clarity and confidence from us: we picked you because you’re the best in the country at what you do. Hold nothing back. Express yourself. Show us what you can really do.

And you know what? If you fail, then you fail. So what? As captain, I’m not going to be chewing people out in press conferences or in the media for trying to play a big shot. And behind the scenes, you’re not gonna get a slap on the wrist from me or Brendon McCullum about it. The bottom line is, everybody fails at some point, so you might as well go out batting the way you want to. That won’t change just because it’s the Ashes.

We’ll move on, we’ll go to sleep and we’ll wake up the next day, hopefully with the sun shining, and we’ll just go again.

Look, I have to be careful about this, because I don’t want this to be taken out of context. Just because I say it’s alright to fail, it doesn’t mean I’m fine with losing. I hate losing. Everyone on this team does. Aye, we all want to win everything going, but there’s a bigger picture. You have to understand that the only way you ever succeed is by having that liberty to really give it a proper go.

And yeah, when you’re up there at the crease, it’s O.K. to have nerves. If you don’t, you probably don’t care enough.

It’s about not shying away from all that’s going on in the moment and showing you’ve got a bit of that dog in you. 

It means that you have a mindset where nothing is ever out of reach. We have the belief that there isn’t any target or challenge that we can’t go after and overcome.

That underpins the philosophy we’re trying to get across to the team in my captaincy.

Everybody fails at some point, so you might as well go out batting the way you want to. That won’t change just because it’s the Ashes.

Ben Stokes

As a leader, I’m not much of a writer and, to be honest, I don’t speak for long periods in the dressing room. I’m more of a “let’s crack on, lads,” lead-by-example guy. But I am clear on what we’re trying to do here, what’s at stake, and it’s bigger than just myself and my own ambitions on the field. 

It’s about inspiring the next generation of players. And that doesn’t just mean kids like I was, but also the up-and-coming crop of players who are already here and making the big decisions about their careers.

The landscape is changing. Cricket as a sport is evolving in a huge way. Faster than it ever has before. Formats like T20, The Hundred and ODI’s are bringing money and opportunities for players that didn’t exist even 15 years ago. 

When I was growing up there was no greater privilege than to represent your country in a test match — and I still believe that, by the way — but I’m not naive. Cricketers have short careers and I know players are going to make decisions about which route they go down based on financial security for them and their families. It’s natural. 

I really want boards across the world to get their heads around this, which they seem to be having a hard time doing. Rather than fight against it, we need to embrace it. Yes, we may lose a few talented players along the way, but the best way to keep test cricket alive and at the pinnacle of the sport is to work harder to show players something that excites them and inspires them.

Ali Yaqub for The Players' Tribune

We need to create a dressing room that is fun to be a part of and an environment where we don’t hold anyone back on the field. We let players — especially our batters — go out and be free in a way that maybe they haven’t been able to before. And this is very attractive to players. I’ve seen the evidence already. One of the most pleasing things to me as captain is when I get people on the county circuit who are close to the England team, ringing me up and asking, “Tell me, what do I need to do to give myself the best opportunity to get into the team??”

And then I speak to the newer guys who have come into the group and they tell me that they were desperate to get the call up, so they could come in and experience what it’s like being a part of our group because it looked so much fun from the outside.

I have to give credit to Brendon, because his philosophy as head coach is all about creating an environment where people are also looking forward to meeting up as a team. He is always saying, “We’re here to make memories whilst we can, ’cause you’re not gonna be in this position for very long.” At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. 

And we want everyone involved to enjoy themselves, players and fans. That is top of our ethos. Yes, cricket is a sport and it’s serious and there’s a lot of hard work and detail that goes into it, but it’s also entertainment. 

Tens of thousands of people turn up to watch us in a test match and millions watch all over the world because they want to be entertained.

Obviously, we want to win but just as important, we want whoever’s paid their money to watch England to leave the ground saying, “Wow, what a good day that was.”

I’ve seen what it’s like when you get those moments that really ignite an audience and even create something that goes beyond cricket. Flintoff in ’05, Beefy in ’81 — magical events that capture the public imagination and show what cricket can be all about. Moments that even people who aren’t normally into cricket stick on the telly for because it’s so exciting and you feel like you’re part of something that you may never get to see again. That’s pure sport. That’s the Ashes.

Gareth Copley/Getty Images

From my own career, I know that innings in the third test at Headingley in 2019 will be one of the things people continue to talk to me about the most when I retire. Just in case you don’t know, we were 2–0 down in the series and chasing 359 in the third test to keep England alive in the Ashes. It was a record run chase.

I’ve seen videos of the way people crowded round screens in public places, stopping to watch this seemingly impossible comeback as it happened and then celebrating together. 

I remember seeing one video from Tottenham’s new stadium — it must’ve been at the bars in the concourse. All the fans — hundreds or even thousands — were crowded around the screens, glued to the cricket, instead of going out to their seats to watch the football. It was just one of the moments that stopped people in their tracks. It was amazing to see reactions like that all over the country. I’m so proud to have been a part of it.

In the moment, there was only one way to go about it in that innings. I never thought about changing how I was batting or going safe, because playing a certain way had got us back into the test in the first place. I remember Leachy came in and I was looking at the scoreboard counting the runs down to single figures. Even when the Aussies brought out an off-spinner like Nathan Lyon, I knew I needed to commit and keep going for it rather than trying to get over the line in ones and twos.  

When I hit that six to take it down to two … Oh man, I was blowing it over the boundary rope. It was literally on the fingertips of the fielder. There were some risky moments and it could’ve gone the other way, but in my mind there was no other option. If I was going to get there, it had to be playing the way I wanted to, with no fear. 

After it was over, we all lost our minds and just turned into little kids, running around and celebrating like fans. We had a great time in the dressing room together as a team and it ended with a group of us taking a big taxi to a McDonald’s drive-through and ordering about £200 worth of burgers and chips. Rooty covered the bill — I think he was trying to get away from the tight Yorkshireman stereotype!

I’ll save the full story of that day for when I’m old, retired and I’ve got two new knees … but for now I’m concentrating on the present and this summer.

We all know the Ashes is massive. It’s elite. It goes beyond normal cricket fans. People all over the world know its history and what it means for England and Australia. 

It goes beyond normal cricket fans. People all over the world know its history and what it means for England and Australia. 

Ben Stokes

It’s not like any other series. There’s the pressure, the hype and the extra noise that comes with it, but we’re ready for all that this summer. We’ve had some good results in the last year and the mindset in the group is so strong. Everyone is fully committed to what we’re doing. We know how good we are and that on our good days we can beat anyone on their good days.

I promise you:

We’re going to play without fear.

We’re going to hold nothing back.

And we’re going to make some memories. 

Hopefully, the result is that we take the urn back, but the most important thing is that — whatever happens — you will be entertained.