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England v Ireland 2023

Explained: The thinking behind Ben Stokes’ bowl-first policy in home Tests

Ben Stokes at the toss
Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 4 minute read

Ben Stokes won the toss and elected to bowl first for the fourth time in four home Tests since becoming England’s full-time captain, continuing a trend that goes against the historical norm.

England bowled first in all but one of their home Tests in 2022. The only time they batted first, inserted by South Africa captain Dean Elgar at Lord’s, they lost by an innings as Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje ripped through the England top order on the opening morning. The reasoning given by Stokes at the toss today (June 1) was simple enough. “It looks pretty good conditions to bowl in,” said Stokes.

Looking back at what Stokes’ justifications for bowling first were in 2022, there are a couple of clear themes. The first is the most obvious one; making the most of favourable overhead conditions and then, as the summer progressed, an acknowledgement of their success chasing.


Stokes’ first toss victory in 2022 was on a flat pitch at Trent Bridge. Upon winning the toss, he cited the Trent Bridge wicket’s propensity to improve over the course of the game – something that came to fruition – and the desire to let James Anderson and Stuart Broad get stuck into the New Zealand top order. “Generally here the wicket gets better as the game goes on,” said Stokes. “Get them in early and get Jimmy and Broady going with the new ball.”

By the time of the India Test at Edgbaston, Stokes’ side already had three successful chases under their belt against New Zealand and that had entered his thinking. “We’ve done pretty well chasing but the toss was dictated by the overheads,” said Stokes.

After that Edgbaston Test, England had secured four of their 12 highest ever successful run chases in Test cricket in the first four Tests of the summer. At the Kia Oval in the final home Test of the year, Stokes didn’t want to stray from what had brought his side joy up until that point. “This summer we’ve done well bowling first,” said Stokes. “[Pitch has] been under cover a bit so hopefully we can utilise the conditions this morning.”

Nothing that Stokes has said about bowling first is revolutionary. He’s effectively played to his side’s strengths and sought to make the most of any helpful conditions offer. What is unusual is the frequency with which he’s bowled first. Bowling-friendly overhead conditions in England are common and often ignored, with the old adage of ‘look down, not up’ holding sway. In the past decade, England bowled first 11 times in 34 Tests when they won the toss before Stokes took over; since his elevation to the role, they’ve done so on every occasion. As recently as 2018, England went three years without winning the toss and bowling first at home.

Part of the logic behind bowling first is that conditions for batting in England are generally at their most favourable on days two and three with the pitch flattening out but not yet breaking up, and bowling first, in theory at least, ensures that a side gets the best conditions for both disciplines in the first half of a Test. It also fits with England’s overall positivity in their tactics. Simply put, Stokes backs his bowlers to make the most of conditions when they’re in his side’s favour.

In Pakistan, England won the toss twice and batted first on both occasions. In a historically high-scoring Test at Rawalpindi, illness in the camp played a part in his decision to bat first whereas at Multan, Stokes, unsure of how the pitch would play, wanted his side to lay their imprint on the match from the off, saying, “We’ll have to wait and see what it [the pitch] offers but hopefully we can go out and set the same sort of benchmark with the bat,” after winning the toss.

Ignoring convention and leaning into their overall positive mantra, Stokes’ inclination to bowl first in home Tests is an encapsulation of the cricket they’re trying to play.

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