It may seem churlish to have any complaints in the warm glow of England’s second-Test win over New Zealand this week, but the result shouldn’t totally erase concerns that Ben Stokes is becoming a caricature of coach Brendon McCullum.
The skipper has done extraordinary things across formats over the years, not least leading England to victory at Trent Bridge on Tuesday. His batting in the second innings in particular ensured England romped to one of the most remarkable wins in their history, chasing 300 in exactly 50 overs. And he batted injured for large parts of it too.
Yet Stokes the batter is better than his stats – still averaging mid-30s – suggest, and the way he batted in the last two Tests was not always what the doctor ordered, even if it was explosive and entertaining.
Under the new regime, he has given himself total licence to bat aggressively from the first ball in a manner reminiscent of McCullum’s own attitude towards the end of his career.
As his time wound down, McCullum’s strike rate increased from 53 per hundred balls in 2012 to 64, then 72.5, 80, and 125 in subsequent seasons. Indeed he still holds the record for most sixes in Tests, 107, with Stokes close behind on 99.
But a key reason why McCullum became so aggressive was his lack of defensive technique. That does not apply with Stokes, who has arguably got the best defence in the England side.
With that in mind, it’s important to have some perspective. The innings he is most famous for is his remarkable century at Headingley in the 2019 Ashes. He did magical things and single-handedly won a Test match from near-impossible circumstances.
But he was only able to because he was not out, and crucial to that was having scored only three off his first 73 balls. He protected his wicket on the previous evening, giving himself the best chance to capitalise later.
Fast-forward to this summer, and in his first Test as skipper Stokes showed his new approach with a scrambled 50 off more than 100 balls at Lord’s.
This included multiple sixes, as he repeatedly charged down the wicket to medium-pacers, unable to dominate in the way he can. He got himself in a tangle, first being out off a no-ball before he was dismissed properly, with the score precariously poised at 5-159.
England still won the game, but really he should have seen the side to safety with ex-skipper Joe Root.
At Nottingham it was much the same story. In the first innings, he almost instantly went on the attack, striking a few huge sixes.
He got out short of a 50 from 30-odd balls when, again, a hundred was not just there for the taking but, truth be told, looking necessary.
Hindsight is wonderful. England won the Test in dramatic style, in part thanks to an unbeaten 50 from the skipper, so the ends justify the means to some extent.
But during his tenure there will be times when this ultra-aggressive approach gets him into trouble.
Many England fans may accept – and maybe even embrace – the rollercoaster ride of his captaincy, even when his batting style loses games or triggers collapses.
But going forward Stokes should recall the spirit of Headingley 2019.
Of course England fans want to see sixes, but it doesn’t need to be full throttle throughout.
Instead of explosive 40s and 50s, Stokes has the ability to score hundreds, bat much longer, and take responsibility as captain. England’s McCullum-Stokes era promises to provide fearless cricket, and I’m all for it. But tempering the unfettered aggression may help realise his full potential as a batter.