Stokes himself was named as Player of the Series against South Africa, after a haul of 149 runs at 37.25, including a match-defining hundred at Old Trafford, and ten wickets at 15.70, more often than not key breakthroughs such as the two in three balls either side of tea on the second full day of the Oval Test that ended South Africa’s hopes of a defendable total.
More than anything, the award was a testament to the manner in which Stokes has led from the front since taking over from Joe Root at the start of the season, at which stage England had won just one of their previous 17 Tests in the space of 18 months. However, speaking to Sky Sports’ Mark Butcher during the post-match presentations, Stokes made it clear that the manner in which his team had followed his example was the defining aspect of their summer-long success.
“It’s been a great series for us as a team,” Stokes said. “We’ve had no real individual standout performances, but different people throughout the whole series have put their hand up in crucial periods for us and, in a team sport, that’s what you want. You want to be able to turn to different people at different times and hope that they can break the game open for you with the ball and bat, and that’s definitely what we’ve managed to do this whole series.”
Ollie Robinson – whom Stokes promoted to a new-ball role for his return to the side at Old Trafford – was named as the Player of the Match at The Oval following his five-wicket haul on the opening morning. But Stokes reserved his most fulsome praise for the old guard of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, who picked up 27 and 29 wickets respectively across the summer to reaffirm their pre-eminence, following the controversial decision to omit both men from the preceding tour of the Caribbean.
“They are just phenomenal,” Stokes said. “To have two of the great seam bowlers of world cricket in your team … I feel very blessed to be in the dressing room with them. We’re very lucky as a nation to have two sporting greats still going out and doing what they’re doing. I mean, I’ve been called old at 31, I’m not quite sure what you can call Jimmy at the moment being 40, but they just keep turning up day in and day out.
“They leave everything out there,” he added. “They are just phenomenal. They’re a huge credit to themselves. They’re a huge credit to this game. And I’m sure a lot of young cricketers around the world who want to be fast bowlers will look up to them.”
Stokes’ management of his bowlers has been a defining aspect of the summer’s success – not simply with his willingness to back them up at all times with packed slip cordons and innovating attacking field placings, but his determination to save their strengths for the critical passages of play, particularly the new ball. To that end, his own bowling role has been about producing impact moments, often when the ball has been at its oldest, but he insisted that the balance he had hit upon was the right one.
“When you’ve got the bowlers like Jimmy, Broady and Robbo, with the skill they possess, it’s trying to manage them at the start of an innings when the ball’s doing the most,” he said. “You don’t want to [take] too much out of them at the start, so we try to have a short spell from one of the opening bowlers, and then bring them back again with one of the opening bowlers bowling a longer spell.
“Then it’s about bringing myself into the game at an appropriate time really, when the big lads have had a few good spells. It’s about understanding when I need to get the most overs out of the three big lads, and they’ve managed to do that in the whole series. They’ve been absolutely phenomenal.”
If there has been a criticism of England’s ultra-aggressive approach, then it has arguably centred around Stokes’ own batting, with Butcher questioning whether he was “selling himself short” with his desire to dominate from the outset – a policy that backfired in his only innings at The Oval – rather than batting with the sort of patience that set up his Old Trafford hundred.
Stokes, however, was unrepentant about his desire to take the attack to the opposition bowlers, adding that the team success was of far greater consequence than his own numbers.
“It’s fine, you can keep criticising me if we’re going to win six out of seven games,” he said. “For me, it’s about the clarity of messaging. Me and Brendon [McCullum] are the guys who were sending this message to this group of players, and I said to the lads in the dressing-room the other day that the person who’s delivering the message can only do so much.
“I thank all my team, my backroom staff, coaches, that they’ve really bought into this,” Stokes added. “There’s a reason why we’ve been able to perform with confidence with each other. And that’s something that’s very rare.”
“Joe’s got to take a lot of credit as well. After captaining the side for six years in a way that he did, to then buy into something completely different to how Joe wanted to operate in the team,” Stokes said.
“When I’m not England captain, someone else is going to come in and they’re going to want to operate in a different way. But everyone’s really bought into it. And honestly I’ve just been very thankful and grateful that I’ve had a group of lads who have who have bought into that and really understood the bigger picture of what me and Baz are trying to achieve.
“This game was shortened, and our main goal was to make sure that it ended in a result,” Stokes said of the three-day window for the Oval Test, following a first-day washout and the subsequent day of respect following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
“We felt we owed it to ourselves, we owed it to the nation who have shown the support throughout this whole summer towards us, and we will always continue to play in a way that we feel is going to entertain people. And always try and look at the positive side of cricket.”
Speaking later in the post-match press conference, Stokes went further about the need for collective buy-in, arguing that the media also had a duty to convey the team’s new message, and temper the criticism when the approach goes wrong – such as it did in the first Test at Lord’s – for the sake of encouraging the next generation to see the exciting, entertaining merits of Test cricket.
“I feel there’s also an added responsibility on the people who comment on the way we play as well,” he said, “because we’re in the day and age now where social media is so accessible to people that, if we’re playing in a certain way and we’re saying this is what we want to do and we believe in it, to be criticised for that, what type of message is that sending to the next generation of people?
“We have a responsibility to go out there and perform in the way that we want to perform, and I feel that people who write about the game or talk about the way in which we play, they should understand as well that they’ve got a huge influence on the next generation of cricketers.
“Because people do listen to what they say about the game, which sometimes contradicts what we’ve got to say, and at the end of the day, the important thing is what is said, and what is spoken about in the dressing-room. Sometimes you feel what we’ve done can get overlooked, because it gets criticised every now and again when things don’t go well, but when it does go well it’s great.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket