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Brendon McCullum puts best feet forward as England brace for test of new resolve

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Ah, but what of South Africa? Sure, that didn’t work at the start. Defeat by an innings and 12 runs inside three days at Lord’s drew plenty of pent-up derision from the sidelines, most of it from traditional supporters – many of them English – who were slightly put out by the suggestion that they were the ones who had got this format all wrong. Cue victories by an innings and 85 runs and nine wickets to take that series with ease, too. Six wins out of seven, two series in the bag, another all-square from 2021. What were you worried about?

Now, of course, the ever-shifting “gotcha” has moved to “can you do it on a sunny (but chilly) and perhaps also hot and sweaty month in Pakistan?” And to be honest, quite rightly. Just as those hypothetical stumbling blocks were posited early in the Brendon McCullum-Ben Stokes tenure, so the challenge of taking this high-wire act abroad is a new one altogether.

“We’ll find out,” McCullum shrugged, when asked how different things could be here compared to the English summer. “There will be times where it could be more extreme in regards to the conditions, there will be times we have to absorb more, and times to put it back on more, and I think that could be the difference between playing, say, in English conditions and playing these. But we’ll find out, as long as guys are living in the moment and they’ve got a positive mindset heading into it, we’ll give ourselves the best chance.”

There are no preconceived notions for England’s first visit to Pakistan in 17 years. “Be where your feet are” and “if you’re present, you give yourself a better chance to adjust” were two phrases that stuck out when McCullum veered close to talking tactics, without ever quite taking his shoes off to dip a toe into those waters. He didn’t quite go full Henry Cooke and say: “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. But he wasn’t far off.

McCullum did, however, appreciate that the contrast between home and away will be felt this week. The first Test, starting in Rawalpindi on Thursday, will have shorter days, with play beginning at 10am because the sun gives it the Irish goodbye not long after 5pm. Conditions, naturally, will be different.

And if the crowds prove to be as packed as they were at times during the summer, they are unlikely to be as supportive. “But we can still bring the same sense of belief among the group,” McCullum said. “To have the same ambition to play entertaining cricket and, hopefully, when the time arrives, win the key moments. Isn’t it the greatest challenge? To win away from home and be successful.”

As much as the noise and funk established in the UK is about to be brought around 4,000 miles away and five hours ahead, there is something tangible at play over here that will have a knock-on effect to cricket back home. So much of the domestic game is up for grabs at the moment, whether through the high-performance review or private equity interest. But the opinion of the England Test coach is one that matters. And it is when running the rule over two of his picks – Liam Livingstone and Rehan Ahmed – that you get an insight into McCullum’s thoughts on where the domestic game is right now.

Ahmed’s addition to the full squad last week – a plan all along, said Rob Key, the team’s director – is, without question, an educated punt. His displays in three first-class games for Leicestershire, along with his limited-overs work, both at Grace Road and for Southern Brave, have shown him worthy of acceleration.

McCullum echoed many of the sentiments already voiced by Key and Ben Stokes in the past week: “a rough diamond… who can spin the ball both ways, dynamic in the field and he’s got a power game and likes to play the game at a high tempo”. However, he decided to go a little further still, perhaps pre-empting future questions if Ahmed simply bowls in the nets and carries drinks throughout this trip, which is a distinct possibility given the pitches will be tough to predict.

“He’s nowhere near the finished article, we know that, but what’s the alternative? Leave him in a system which may not come through necessarily as the product you’d hope for in the end? So we get him in here and it’s a great feather in the cap for the skipper and the senior lads, the coaches, that we believe we can help get his talent through quicker. If we can’t, that’s our problem, not his. He’s a rare talent worth investing in, and we’ll make sure we’ll try to look after him.”

It was a shot across the bows of County Cricket, though previous national coaches have administered similar. Duncan Fletcher was famously irked by the drop-off from international cricket to the domestic codes and others have dished out facsimiles of his complaints, particularly on the topic of spin. Given the dearth of reliable spin alternatives beyond Jack Leach, Ahmed’s inclusion – whether made in October or November – and that of Livingstone, has merit.

When asked if it mattered that Livingstone had not played a competitive red-ball match since August 2021, McCullum responded simply: “Not really. I think he’s a good player, so we’ll find out I suppose.”

That view is no surprise given it was the entire premise of Livingstone’s selection. The idea of Livingstone is the greatest pull, though that perhaps does a disservice to his previous red-ball work, which is worthy of respect. All but one of his seven first-class centuries came in his first two years in the format. While he has been pulled in other directions by the white ball, you don’t have to meet the logic too far along to understand why he is such an attractive proposition to this team.

“I’ve seen a bit of him on the T20 circuit and international cricket and enjoyed his style of play – he bowls off-spin, leg-spin, fields well and smacks the ball out of the park – it’s hard not to get around a player who plays like that.”

Beyond that, there is a view that Livingstone’s selection is a win for English cricket. He has not struggled for offers elsewhere, and was even the first draft pick for the BBL this season before having to pull out for this Test series. At a time when boards are fighting off encroaching franchises, Livingstone’s presence in the squad sticks out as a statement piece.

“He carries himself in a great way and in a great manner. It’s a real feather in the cap for the skipper and some of the senior players within the group that one of the best T20 players in the world is desperate to be part of the squad, because of the goodwill that’s been built up over the last few months.”

There is a sense, however, that McCullum’s suggestion that the Test side can itself make up for the shortcomings of County Cricket is unsustainable. And that, really, is what all the queries around his brand of Test cricket were concerned with – sustainability.

But, maybe even to worry about that is to miss the point entirely. Internally it has been about rediscovering the enjoyment of Test cricket, and no-one can say that has not been the external effect. The twin objectives of success and entertainment have skipped down the road hand-in-hand up to this point. Even in defeat, who’s to say it won’t continue?

English Test cricket has always been its own island, but right now there is a real sense that it is drifting further away from its roots. And while that seems alarming when you read it aloud, at this juncture, it may not be a bad thing.

One of the most sought-after T20 batters and a fearless leg-spinning allrounder are knuckling down for the longest format, in a part of the world where an English Test side has not set foot, since 2005. Who knows how this will end up in the next month let alone beyond that? Perhaps it really is about being where your feet are.

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