England in New Zealand: Ben Stokes’ team has become the series winner

England captain Ben Stokes (left) leads his team off the field after defeating New Zealand

For a team that doesn’t focus on winning, England have done a good job of making winning a habit.

If they really wanted to win, they couldn’t beg, borrow, or steal. Now they care less about results, they have more wins than they know how to handle.

The most recent loss to New Zealand at Mount Maunganui in 267 wins is England’s 10th in 11 games and sixth in a row. Since Andrew Strauss’ class was on course to victory in Australia in 2010 and topped the world rankings, no English team has followed a similar streak.

What stood out at the Bay Oval was the way England clinched such a big win – their first in that country in 15 years – without always being at their best.

They were times in every batting innings as they let New Zealand in with soft dismissals. England got slightly confused when Tom Blundell and Blair Tickner added 59 for the last wicket in the Kiwis’ first innings. Zak Crawley dropped two catches on the second slip, albeit in the difficult conditions of the night.

But England had bagged victory, their first in a day-night Test away from home, in the first session on Day Four. Had Tickner not been hanging out again Sunday afternoon there would have been less than an hour of play.

Ben Stokes takes center stage. The England captain is a born winner whose willpower seems to rule everything to his will. He modeled this team on his own, so England’s style of play is enough to shake them off, even if their performance sometimes falters.

Stokes admitted he would have followed New Zealand’s decision to bowl first, but after England were asked to bat, the pace of their runs dictated the course of the game.

Much was made of Stokes’ decision to declare on the first night at 325-9. Yes it was notable because it came after just 58.2 overs, the second-earliest in the first innings of a Test in history, but in reality Stokes knew it was simple cricket logic to want to bowl under lights instead Watching your tailenders try and do a few extra runs.

It put New Zealand on track to start both innings under lights on days one and three, while England only had to bat once at dusk. While England managed 79-2, New Zealand’s combined performance was 100-8. Here the game was won and lost.

If the declaration was a phone call the captain got right, there were countless other schemes and plans that came to fruition as Stokes once again proved to be the ultimate problem solver.

A marginal lbw review that saw the end of Kane Williamson stoked himself as he bowled bouncers to catch Devon Conway and kept the field going to trick Michael Bracewell into fooling Jack Leach.

When he’s not trying, Stokes makes good decisions. At some point on Saturday, Stokes was waiting to bat but had to go where no one else can go for him. A wicket fell, meaning Ben Foakes had to be promoted up the order.

It turned out Foakes would make a crucial 51 and lead England from a potentially precarious position. Stokes had even timed his walk to the loo.

Stokes succeeds by making the players on his team better cricketers. Not necessarily by improving their skills, but by giving them freedom and confidence.

It is a remarkable quirk that England have lost more than they have won in the 36 Tests in which Stokes, Root, Alastair Cook, James Anderson and Stuart Broad – five all-time greats – played together.

Now Stokes brings out the best in Foakes, Leach, Ben Duckett and Harry Brook, the latter a newcomer to Test cricket but seemingly on his way to becoming a superstar.

England batsman Harry Brook plays an aggressive shot
Harry Brook was named Player of the Match in three of his five Tests

There is also power to add. Jonny Bairstow remains sidelined with a broken leg. Jofra Archer is feeling his way back to full fitness. Mark Wood was rested for this tour. Stokes has said he will have a “selection nightmare” when all players are available.

Potential for improvement can also be found in the current XI.

Crawley remains an enigma at the top of the rankings, a player whose off-drives should be protected by the National Trust but who also offers more benefits than a broken glass.

He had a hot time the first morning, effectively going out three times in 14 balls and blasting those two catches. To Crawley’s credit, the 28 he scored in difficult conditions on the second night set the tone for England’s second innings.

Root, who plays backstroke twice, now has seven Tests without a hundred and seems a bit struggling with the pace of England’s ultra-aggressive style. At his best, Root is shaking the scoreboard and will certainly be making big innings again soon.

And perhaps the last issue to be solved for Stokes the captain is how to get the absolute best out of Stokes the player. The Skipper has completed five Tests without half a century and is too good a racquet to run much longer.

All of this paints a daunting prospect for England’s opponents. They win without being at their best, have star players on the sidelines and still have room for improvement.

“That’s the great thing about it – no one is happy with where we are at the moment,” Stokes said. “We’re always looking for little things here and there.

“Results are not what matters right now. It’s all about the process. If we play well, we’ll win. If we don’t, we probably won’t give ourselves a chance to win. It’s as simple as that.”

While England celebrated late into the evening at the Bay Oval, Australia’s second Test match against India was shown on the big screen. England didn’t pay much attention to it but it was a decent reminder of what’s on the horizon – a home ash, five Tests in India next winter.

Whether England are considering those two upcoming challenges is up for debate. They say they aren’t, but human nature would certainly see them creeping into the back of their minds.

Either way, the rest of the world should be thinking of England. This team may just be getting started.

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