Should Ben Stokes be criticised for enforcing the follow on against New Zealand?
New Zealand’s dramatic win over England in Wellington will go down as one of the greatest comebacks of all time. They are only the fourth team to win a Test match after being made to follow on.
After they were reduced to 103-7 on day two, a blistering lower-order cameo from Tim Southee saw New Zealand finish their first innings 226 runs adrift of England’s 435-8 declared. When the last wicket fell shortly before lunch on day three, Ben Stokes decided to ask New Zealand to bat again.
On a flat pitch and with New Zealand so close to being within the 200-run margin, the decision was made to look questionable as all of the Black Caps’ top three scored half-centuries. Kane Williamson went on to reach his 26th Test hundred and overtake Ross Taylor as New Zealand’s leading Test run-scorer in the process. Another half-century from Daryl Mitchell and a 90 from Tom Blundell took New Zealand’s innings to 483 all out and left England needing 258 to win.
While England have chased totals in excess of that four times already in fourth innings’ under Brendon McCullum, Stokes’s enforcement of the follow-on on such a placid surface in part led to New Zealand forcing their way back into the contest.
In reality, if England had executed their shots better on day five they would have chased the total down. There was little for bowlers to work with in the wicket and the needless run out of Harry Brook was a decisive turning point. In such a close result, the minutiae of decisions come under scrutiny, in this circumstance it was the enforcement of the follow-on. But equally, other factors would have also swung the result the other way. For example, if Stokes had opted not to declare on day two and allow Jack Leach and Joe Root to score just one more run between them, the end result could have been different. Had one just of New Zealand’s batters scored one less run, England could also have come out as the winners.
Enforcing a follow-on is only ever wrong in hindsight, and given that England lost the game Stokes’s decision looks a lot worse than if James Anderson had hit another sumptuous four to score the winning runs.
Nevertheless, that didn’t happen, and England have fallen to the tightest of all losses – the second since Stokes took over the captaincy. Following the end of play, Stokes backed his decision to ask New Zealand to bat again.
“It was always our game to lose once we enforced the follow-on,” he said. “Imagine captaining in hindsight? That’s nothing that I would never do.”
“It was always our game to lose once we enforced the follow on.”
There was still significant debate online regarding the decision, with Stokes now only the fourth captain to lose a Test after making such a call.
Undoubtedly, Ben Stokes has been great for ENG. But he got carried away here with the follow on decision 😁
— Bharath Ramaraj (@Fancricket12) February 28, 2023
“England were always going to have to bat again on this wicket… If he hadn’t enforced the follow on England would have batted under less pressure”
Sir Alastair giving his thoughts of the follow-on ahead of day on day 4️⃣
Play will resume at 9:30pm on BT Sport 1 📺#NZvENG pic.twitter.com/V8y4PQMSj7
— Cricket on BT Sport (@btsportcricket) February 26, 2023
So, are you going to enforce the follow-on?
— Harsha Bhogle (@bhogleharsha) February 28, 2023
England assistant coach, Paul Collingwood, backed Stokes’s decision speaking after day three of the match. He said: “It’s the aggressive approach and that’s how we try to do things. It was very clear in Stokesy’s mind when we turned up this morning that if we had the chance to enforce the follow-on we would be taking it. We never take a backward step.”
Regardless of whether the decision was correct, it set up one of the greatest finishes to a Test match of all time. That should be celebrated rather than the failures of England’s overall approach picked apart.