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If Ben Stokes was hurting from defeat, he wasn’t showing it.
“It’s very exciting to know that the way in which we are playing our cricket actually couldn’t be more perfect for the situation we find ourselves in – we have to win these three games to get this urn back,” said the England captain after his side’s 43-run loss in Sunday’s second Ashes Test at Lord’s.
For Stokes, the key to overcoming the 2-0 series lead which Australia have established lies in one place: the mind.
“We’ll keep on giving every player the best chance to be completely clear in their head about what they want to go out and do,” he said.
Others are not so sure about the clarity of England’s thinking. Former England skipper Michael Vaughan called the team’s first innings at Lords “stupid”, whilst another of Stokes’ predecessors, Michael Atherton, said what he saw “was not brave or bold” but instead just “bad cricket”.
The freedom which Stokes and Test coach Brendon McCullum have granted their players is no surprise. Since the duo joined forces in May 2022, phrases like ‘fear of failure’ and ‘pressure to perform’ have been cast aside.
It is a culture change that has helped England go from winning one in 17 Test matches prior to the pair teaming up, to 11 victories in their past 15 red-ball games, playing a brand of cricket that may yet redefine the game.
The Test side’s run rate in 2022 was the highest the format of the game had seen for 112 years. Millions of fans have been captivated by the style of play on show at Edgbaston and Lord’s.
However, beneath the soundbites and beyond the squad’s figureheads lies a more complex story.
The team’s transformation has been powered by those behind the scenes, as much as the front-of-house figures.
From psychologically preparing young players for the rigours of an Ashes series to moving away from the drill-sergeant mentality of previous squads, this is how the ‘team behind the team’ have helped create an exciting, new culture – which, in the next three matches, faces its toughest test yet.
As Stuart Broad steams into bowl, watched studiously by Stokes and McCullum, a less familiar member of England’s camp looks on from behind the nets.
Jon Marzetti’s typical working day seems like a cricket fan’s dream. The sports psychologist spends most of his time on or around the training pitch, locked in conversation with the likes of Broad, Stokes and McCullum.
It is where 90% of his performance-focused work – speaking to players about elements such as focus and confidence or advising the coaching team on the best way of putting their message across – is conducted.
Marzetti’s arrival at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) coincided with Stokes and McCullum joining forces in May last year, helping them – along with Marzetti’s back-room colleagues – to change the Test set-up.
“Starting at the same time as Baz and Stokes took over was really helpful,” said Marzetti, speaking before this summer’s Ashes.
“It allowed us to have conversations like, ‘What do you want this place to feel like, what do you want people to experience playing for England?’
“There was real clarity on what the vision was – placing a value on relationships, the style of cricket that we want to play and the way we want to make people feel with our cricket.”
Marzetti’s remit spans three distinct areas. He is responsible for supporting leadership figures such as Stokes and McCullum with the way they communicate with their players.
He also provides what he terms ‘targeted player support’, helping players move from the second-string Lions team up to Test level, for example.
But it’s the third part of Marzetti’s role that is arguably the most recognised.
“Cricket poses unique challenges to wellbeing and mental health in terms of time away from home and the amount of travel, so that’s a key area that we try incorporate into our work,” he explained.
The challenges are familiar to Marcus Trescothick. England’s current batting coach and former opening batter has battled anxiety since childhood and was diagnosed with depression in 2006 after returning from the national team’s tour of India.
Although Trescothick does not attribute his struggles to the demands of touring – which can see players spending months at a time away from their families – he was part of a very different England set-up.
Seventeen years ago, Trescothick and his England team-mates were able to call on the services of Steve Bull, England’s then sports psychologist.
While this was still beyond the provision available to many elite athletes at the time, support with the mental side of performance and personal wellbeing has vastly increased since.
The ECB’s various international teams now have access to a six-strong team, with Marzetti joined by two clinical psychologists and specialist support for the T20, ODI, women’s squads and ECB coaches.
In his playing days, Trescothick and his team-mates were aware that in some set-ups, time was always ticking.
Coaches’ faith could quickly be exhausted and a player, such as the mercurial Mark Ramprakash, would only be one underwhelming match away from speculation and scrutiny over their place.
The threat posed by such a short-term outlook, dictated almost exclusively by output and results, created a fear of failure. Part of Trescothick’s role is drawing the sting from the scorecard and what it might mean for a player personally.
“The way that the management team deal with success and failure – the more consistent and relaxed that approach can be – helps players feel comfortable,” explained Trescothick before the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston.
“I think it’s about trying to enjoy it as much as you can, rather than getting caught up in the fear of losing or worrying about getting it wrong.”
It is a sentiment backed by Marzetti. For him, shifting the emphasis away from a ‘win at all costs’ attitude not only removes pressure but also forges stronger bonds between squad members.
“I think one of the most powerful things that Baz and Stokesy have done in their time so far is shift the meaning around playing for England,” he said.
“One of the biggest changes has been that there’s probably a purpose and meaning to being in an England squad that is greater, than whether it’s a ‘W’ [win] or an ‘L’ [loss] at the end of the game.
“Results are always going to evoke emotions… but I think when there’s greater purpose to the environment, there’s a greater purpose to being an England player.”
When Marzetti looks for an example of the ethos in action, he picks a defeat, not a victory.
In February, England became just the second team in the 146-year history of Test cricket to lose a match by one run, edged out by New Zealand in an instant classic.
“The result didn’t go the way in which anyone would’ve wanted the result to go, but it was an unbelievable game of cricket,” he said.
“We committed to the way in which we wanted to play and we were part of an amazing spectacle which almost supersedes the result.
“The players know, ‘If I go out and I try to commit to what I’m being asked to do, I know if I do fail I’m still going to get the backing of the dressing room, coach and captain’ – because there’s a buy-in to what we’re doing collectively.”
If players’ minds are conditioned differently, so are their bodies.
Rob Ahmun, former Glamorgan strength and conditioning specialist, joined the ECB in 2014 and now heads the medicine and science department, which Marzetti is part of. Ahmun has witnessed a fundamental shift in the way players are physically prepared for Test cricket – the new levels of trust invested in them come with more personal responsibility for their fitness.
“There’s been an evolution from being the drill sergeant, standing there, watching every rep a person makes and telling them what their week should be like, to having more facilitative coaching conversations with the players,” Ahmun said prior to this summer’s Ashes
Ahmun described a mantra of “arriving at the series ready to perform” – giving players autonomy and buy-in to the team’s aims.
It is an ethos brought into focus by Stokes’ ongoing attempts to overcome a long-standing knee injury. The England skipper bowled just seven overs across the two Tests in New Zealand earlier this year, but managed 14 overs in the Ashes opener at Edgbaston. A nine-week recovery period, during which he appeared only sparingly for the Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League, was managed in conjunction with Ahmun’s team.
The backroom staff play a vital role in monitoring the physical demands of Test match cricket. During a typical game, Ahmun estimates England’s fast bowlers will run 7km at a speed of 20km per hour, the maximum speed on most treadmills.
While Ahmun’s team don’t shy away from number-crunching – looking at GPS data, bowling overs and training workload, in particular – the unmeasurable human element is crucial in deciding if a player is ready and fully prepared for the white heat of a Test match.
“Sometimes, I won’t even mention an injury during the rehab phase, because I don’t really want to draw attention to that,” he said.
“I don’t want them to internalise their feelings and go body scanning to say: ‘Right, how is my hamstring feeling?’
“If the player feels something, they’ll tell you, rather than you constantly asking and almost reinforcing the negative side of things.
“The conversations coaches and physios will have with players, just asking how they’re feeling, can sometimes be overlooked, but it’s a very important piece of the puzzle. Ultimately, it’s the person who we want to be ready to perform.”
While the work of individuals such as Ahmun, Trescothick and Marzetti has been crucial to underpinning England’s cultural change, they are also quick to point to the influence exerted by Stokes and McCullum.
“They both see the world very similarly,” reflected Marzetti.
“The combination of the pair of them enables a really psychologically-aware environment.
“They’re willing to think about the psychology of those that they’re leading and those that they’re playing with.
“I think that has been a significant, if not the most significant factor, in the shift in the last 12 months.”
Both Stokes and McCullum have first-hand experience of psychological support. Stokes’ battle with anxiety, which saw the England captain take a six-month break from the game in 2021, was fought with the aid of a clinical psychologist, while McCullum has worked with famed former All Blacks mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka.
“Stokes is just an incredible role model in being able to prioritise mental health at really difficult moments,” said Marzetti.
“Sometimes sport can feel like the most important thing, but I think his ability to articulate his experiences and normalise them is amazing.”
While England’s culture has shown its value in challenging moments against sides such as South Africa and New Zealand, it is now loaded with the weight of an Ashes series and the rivalry’s history. England are attempting to become only the second team in Ashes’ history to overturn a 2-0 deficit.
As Marzetti acknowledged before a ball had been bowled: “The challenge from a psychology point of view is to remain consistent and retain clarity when it comes to the processes we’ve put in place and the style that we want to play with.”
Does lessening the focus on results, however well-intentioned, diminish the team’s chances of winning? Should a swashbuckling style of play be placed on such a pedestal, if it jeopardises the side’s hopes of claiming major international honours?
It’s a subject which has even drawn comment from the Prime Minister, with Rishi Sunak telling Test Match Special: “It is possible to play Bazball, but there are periods in games where you need to recognise the situation.”
Stokes and McCullum’s commitment to their approach remains undimmed, though.
Speaking after the second Test at Lord’s, McCullum said that overhauling the team’s strategy would be “foolish”.
Stokes, meanwhile, is not about to start dismantling the culture that has been built at the first sign of a storm.
“Nothing is going to change because we’ve had unbelievable success with it,” said Stokes.
“If we were to change anything from the last 12 months because we find ourselves in an Ashes series, then anything from the last 12 months will have been completely pointless.”
The pair’s devotion is admirable to some, illogical to others.
One thing is for sure: whilst England’s culture, mindset and style won’t shift to suit the state of this summer’s series, Stokes, McCullum and their team will be hoping the result at Headingly is very different from what has gone before.