England go into Wednesday's first Test against West Indies at Lord's keen to celebrate Jimmy Anderson and eager to embark on the long road to the 2025-26 Ashes.

But for all the signposts to the past and the future, Ben Stokes knows there is no pleasure quite like the present. Starting this week, England desperately need to rediscover the knack of victory.

Ever since the rousing conclusion to last summer's Ashes, their Test and white-ball teams have flunked every big exam — from the woeful defence of their one-day title, via the sobering 4-1 defeat in India, through to their underwhelming T20 World Cup in the Caribbean, where a semi-final appearance masked a multitude of sins.

And while Stokes bridled when it was pointed out that his side had not won a Test series since December 2022, one thing is clear: victories over West Indies and Sri Lanka this summer are non- negotiable. 

Their next four series are Pakistan and New Zealand away, India at home, then the trip to Australia. Life will only get harder in the next phase of the Bazball project.

In fairness to Stokes, his captaincy remains in the black, despite a tour of India which left Brendon McCullum admitting England needed to 'refine' their approach, and which the captain yesterday described, generously, as a 'hiccup'.

Yet of the 34 men who have led England in 10 Tests or more, Stokes's win percentage of 58 is higher than all bar Douglas Jardine and WG Grace.

If he wins five out of six in the coming weeks, he will be top of the pile. Even his critics, who remain bewilderingly numerous, may have to pause for breath.

But the Anderson-related fanfare, which will begin with his family ringing the bell in the Lord's pavilion five minutes before play, cannot obscure the rawness of the bowling now at Stokes's disposal. With Stuart Broad long gone, Anderson about to go, and the out-of-favour Ollie Robinson in danger of going altogether, England's greybeard will soon be Chris Woakes, whose Test record at home — 113 wickets at under 22 — stands comparison with any. Stokes's own recovery from knee surgery certainly helps.

Yet there is a reason the phrase 'high ceiling' is becoming one of his favourites: Gus Atkinson, Shoaib Bashir and Dillon Pennington — who could win his first cap in Nottingham next week — are being selected because of the heights they may yet achieve, not the peaks already scaled.

Meanwhile, Jamie Smith has taken the gloves for Surrey in only two Championship matches since September 2022, and never in a first-class game at Lord's, where more experienced wicketkeepers than him have been made to look foolish by the late wobble.

It may be a good job England's first assignment is against a West Indies side who have not won a series in this country since 1988, and whose hopes of repeating their stunning victory over Australia at Brisbane in January have been harmed by an injury to their dependable quick Kemar Roach.

An attack of Shamar Joseph — star of the Brisbane heist — Alzarri Joseph, Jason Holder, Jayden Seales and left-arm spinner Gudakesh Motie remains strong, but the tourists' batting looks over-reliant on the steadiness of captain and opener Kraigg Brathwaite. Anything other than a defeat would be a surprise.

Unavoidably, perhaps, Anderson will loom large in his 188th and final Test — a match he enters with almost as many wickets (700) as the other 21 players combined (784). Stokes said he 'completely understood' some of the negative reaction to Anderson's enforced retirement, but hinted at the ruthlessness that he hopes will take England all the way to the Gabba in November 2025.

'You've sometimes got to put personal relationships to the side, because for me the most important thing is what I think is best for the team,' said Stokes. 'That comes with the responsibility of being captain.'

The two men remain on good terms, as they must be if Anderson is to act, as planned, as a dressing-room mentor.

Stokes even texted him after his seven for 35 against Nottinghamshire recently, asking: 'Did you really have to go and do that?' Anderson's reply: 'Sorry mate.' Asked what it was like 'breaking up' with Anderson, Stokes said: 'We're just discussing who's going to keep the kids.'

In one sense, Anderson — 42 later this month — is a victim of a change in perspective. Stokes spent the first two years of his reign emphasising the importance of not looking too far ahead. But the lure of the Ashes — as other England captains have discovered before him — has altered the emphasis.

'I'm not going to lie,' he said. 'I'll be nearly four years in as captain, and I want to go out there knowing we've done everything over this 18-month period to not just compete with Australia, but beat them.

'It's probably the first time you've heard me speak like that about something so far away. But I want this team to progress, so I'm focusing on that because I want us to go out to Australia and win the Ashes back.'

Some will interpret this as a sign of disrespect to West Indies. But Stokes insisted it was perfectly possible to focus on the here and now while planning for the future. Thanks to Anderson, though, the old era is not quite over. Enjoy him while you can.

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2024-07-09T23:00:38Z dg43tfdfdgfd