It may sound more like a superhero alias than a role in a cricket team, but Ben Stokes has revealed how ‘the nighthawk’ exemplifies England’s mission to change the game.
Since Stokes and head coach Brendon McCullum took charge of a mis-firing Test team earlier this summer, they have enjoyed stunning success with a bold, ambitious approach.
Over the course of four successive victories and a quartet of remarkable chases they have attacked at every turn and delivered on their promises to challenge the conventions of their sport.
On Tuesday, they made history by hunting down a record target of 378 against India at Edgbaston – thanks to a stunning stand of 269 between centurions Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow. But, when the pair came together on the fourth evening, Stokes was busy hatching an unlikely contingency plan.
Had either of the in-form duo been dismissed late in the day, he was preparing to send Stuart Broad to swing with abandon – subverting the traditional tactic of promoting a tail-ender to block.
“We are looking at every situation we find ourselves in and asking what the positive thing to do is, for example, we’ve renamed what the nightwatchman is all about,” he explained.
“We’ve called it ‘nighthawk’. That was Broady. He was going to go out with half-an-hour left to play to try to literally slog. That’s where we are at the moment, it’s awesome.”
Asked what a ‘nighthawk’ might hope to achieve, Stokes accepted the idea might easily implode, adding mischievously: “30 off 10 balls, or nought off one.”
Stokes’ latest gambit hardly constitutes a revolution in itself, but it offers further insight into a regime that has already changed the structures around the national side. Net sessions now last as long as a batter requires, with personal discretion the guiding factor rather than strict time slots, and pre-play warm-ups also a looser arrangement.
But the biggest change has been the spirit of adventure which the team have displayed after crossing the boundary rope. They have swiftly lifted the mood around the national team, with the feelgood factor spreading to new fans too.
Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Warwickshire all threw their gates open for free on day five and attracted thousands of supporters through the door, including some who had attended before.
The England and Wales Cricket Board designed and launched The Hundred to broaden the game’s appeal, but it now seems possible that the oldest format around could be doing the same job.
“We have always had unbelievable support in England, no matter what we have gone through as a team, but now I think we are getting a different, new group of fans,” said Stokes.
“We have had a lot of people turning up to games for the first time who have absolutely loved it. It’s been thrilling to watch, with ball in hand and also with the bat. When you are doing that you are doing something right as a team.
“Fans are probably turning up now not knowing what’s going to happen but they do know what we are trying to do and how we are going to play the game. We know we have people turning up because they are going to be entertained in one way or another.
“We want to create a legacy of Test cricket, we have done that in white-ball cricket and we have seen other teams follow in the white-ball footsteps. You want results but you want people to enjoy watching a spectacle – yes, cricket has always been a spectacle, but it’s about doing it differently now.”
Stokes’ predecessor Root is one of those flourishing in the new environment, with three centuries in the past four games taking him to a new career-high rating as he moves further clear of Australia’s Marnus Labuschagne at the top of the ICC rankings.
While he was already the most accomplished technical player in the team, Root has shown a willingness to play with a greater freedom by adding a flamboyant reverse ramp for six to his arsenal in recent weeks.
“I didn’t have any influence on that at all – that is Joe Root doing Joe Root things,” said Stokes.
“When he played that reverse we just said ‘you’re a freak to be able to do that Joe’. I’m almost bored of talking about how good Rooty is but it is awesome to see him add another bit to his game, which I thought wasn’t impossible because of how good he already was.”