The dust has barely settled on one of the most remarkable matches in the history of Test cricket – a thrilling one-run defeat by New Zealand in Wellington – but attention is already turning to the forthcoming visit of the Australians.
The hotly-anticipated series begins at Edgbaston in less than four months, with a revitalised England attempting to reclaim the urn for the first time since 2015, and Stokes’ troublesome left knee is already a cause for concern.
He was barely able to bowl in New Zealand, contributing just nine overs across two Tests, and was in visible pain while batting during the dramatic day five run chase at Basin Reserve. Stokes’ importance as a totemic leader of the side cannot be overstated – he has overseen 10 wins from 12 games – but he has already confirmed he will honour his £1.6million deal with Chennai Super Kings later this month, spending up to eight weeks with the franchise.
McCullum was due to play golf with his fellow Kiwi and current CSK head coach Stephen Fleming, with Stokes’ well-being on the agenda.
“I’ll be talking to him and making sure he looks after the skipper,” said McCullum.
“He sees the big picture, so I’ve no concerns that Ben will be totally looked after. I also believe that the Ashes is the script that the skipper is waiting to write, so he’ll be sweet. I don’t have any concerns.
“I don’t think he’s jeopardising it. I know that Chennai set-up, I played for that franchise and it is excellent in looking after the players. They’ve got a very good medical team.
“The skipper has a strong mind and he knows how to get right for the big moments. His life is that, right?”
“In fact, I look forward to watching him play in it without the captaincy and having the opportunity to play cricket without worrying about everybody else. When he comes back into the fold and leads us into the Ashes campaign he’ll have the bit between his teeth and I think we’ll be all right.”
McCullum was in chipper mood as he looked back on a drawn two-match series with his home nation, echoing Stokes in his appreciation of the unforgettable conclusion in Wellington in spite of the result.
“I thought it was epic, actually,” he said. “I know we came out on the wrong side of it – or the losing side of it – but I think there’ll be millions of people – tens of millions – around the world that sat back and enjoyed that Test match. I know we were always going to be judged on our results, but I think we achieved quite a bit throughout the series.”
“Now we have the opportunity to really start to plot and plan and turn our attention to what’s going to be a pretty amazing time in the guys’ lives – an Ashes series at home against a good Australian side and I think we’ll go into it with a lot of confidence.”
One man who may be struggling in that regard is Zak Crawley. The opener managed just 58 runs in four innings on tour and now averages just 27.60 from 33 Tests.
McCullum continued to show faith in the 25-year-old but admitted the role he is being asked to perform requires thick skin.
“You have to have a memory like a sieve if you are going to play as an aggressive opener in Test cricket, but that is his role. You have to suck up the low scores,” he said.
“His attacking game is much stronger than his defensive game, so he needs to start from a position from attack rather than looking to defend. If he does that, who knows what he can achieve? That is the challenge for Zak.
“From my conversations with Ricky Ponting, the Australians respect him for the instinct and power he has at the top of the order and how destructive he can be. He is still a big player for us moving forward.”
Against the Black Caps England went for an unchanged pace trio of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ollie Robinson, but are likely to have the likes of Jofra Archer, Mark Wood, Chris Woakes and Matthew Potts pushing for Ashes attention.
Choosing the right balance will be a challenge in its own right, but one McCullum welcomes.
“You want selection to be hard,” he said.
“We’re very lucky we’ve got good cattle, so to speak, so it’s down to whether Stokesey and I cock it up or not.”