With Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum having transformed England's Test team, next summer's Ashes series promises to be a highly-competitive affair; England will be looking to win the urn for the first time since 2015; series opener at Edgbaston from Friday, June 16
Tuesday 27 December 2022 19:05, UK
Were Australia watching? Did they see England seal the sweep?
They had the chance, what with their opening Test match against South Africa, due to run concurrently with England's final one in Pakistan, over in two days on the greenest of Gabba pitches.
Even if Australia's eyes were elsewhere, they will have witnessed enough evidence over the last seven months to know the England side they encounter in the 2023 Ashes will be an entirely different proposition to the one they brushed aside in 2021/22.
In Australia last winter, England were timid, looked tactically bereft and often appeared beaten before they stepped over the white line. Now, under Ben Stokes, they are tigerish, tactically revolutionary and seem like they will beat every side with whom they share the field.
There are plenty of reasons besides the captain to think England can win the urn for the first time since 2015 - an energised Ollie Robinson, the emergence of Harry Brook, the evergreen Jimmy Anderson, their electric style - but the captain is the main one.
"Most significant", "potentially the greatest ever" and "genius" are words and phrases being used to describe Stokes as England skipper after a quite startling transformation of the Test team.
Before he took charge, they had won one in 17. Since his appointment, they have won nine from 10. The turnaround has been even more rapid than England's run-rate.
Through aggression, intelligence, selflessness, fearlessness, personality and the desire to make cricket's purest form its most pulsating - traits that have seeped down from the skipper into his side - Stokes' England are racking up records and wins in the longest format and earning plaudits for saving it.
This is a team that plunders 500 runs in a day. One that doesn't take the new ball as soon as it is available just because that is Test match convention. One that doesn't deploy a slip just because that is Test match convention. One that declares with four sessions left in the Test. One that risks defeat in pursuit of victory. Winning matters for this England team but not as much as winning in style.
How many Test captains past or present would have called their side in at tea on day four of the series-opening Rawalpindi Test and said: 'here you go, Pakistan, chase 343 on the flattest pitch imaginable'? Well, we're waiting…
Perhaps one, former New Zealand skipper Brendon McCullum - the man who is now England head coach, the man who puts the Baz in Bazball, the "smart cookie", to use Nasser Hussain's words, who has helped Stokes turn an ailing red-ball team into Test trailblazers.
"I do b****r all," was McCullum's modest assessment of his role, but you sense that is far from the truth and that the Stokes-led revival would not have been possible without his fellow New Zealand native.
Still, it was Stokes' pioneering field placings and tactical masterstrokes, including delaying the use of aforementioned new ball while the old one was reversing, that earned England that remarkable win in Rawalpindi on the most soporific of surfaces.
It is his sheer force of personality and the belief that he has instilled into the side that makes you think he could lead the Dog and Duck second XI into The Ashes next summer and that his team would still have a chance of laying a glove on Pat Cummins' men.
Joking aside, Stokes will be taking a much better group than that into the series against Australia. He has a number of razor-sharp tools at his disposal and, fitness-permitting, potentially a few more to come.
We can pretty much guarantee that one of his opening batters will be Zak Crawley, a player England don't expect consistency from, McCullum said last summer, but special moments. There were special moments in Pakistan, including when he and Ben Duckett piled on 174 in the first session of the series and Crawley posted the fastest ton by an England Test opener from just 86 deliveries.
Duckett will hope to be alongside him. Selected in the subcontinent for his aptitude against spin - a ploy that worked as the Nottinghamshire left-hander amassed 357 runs in six innings at an average of 71.40 with one hundred and three fifties - Duckett is adamant he can succeed, first in New Zealand in February and then in England next summer against more seam-heavy attacks.
After performing in Pakistan, he probably deserves that chance, although there is still time for a county opener to Bazball their way into the mix ahead of the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston from June 16.
Nos 3, 4 and 6 look pretty sewn up, with Ollie Pope excelling at first drop since being given that berth by Stokes last year, Joe Root immovable a spot lower down and the skipper, Stokes, leading from the front two places below that. The rest of the middle order then becomes interesting, not because of a paucity of options but a plethora. Who would have said that a year ago?!
In the end the battle for No 5 could come down to a shootout between a Yorkshireman who had the summer of his life (Jonny Bairstow) and another who had the winter of his (Harry Brook).
Bairstow, 33, was preferred to Brook last summer and went on to reel off 681 runs in six Tests at an average of 75.66 and strike rate of 96.59, with his four tons including a 77-ball effort in Nottingham.
Bairstow's unfortunate leg break on a golf course gave Brook the chance in Pakistan, however, and the 23-year-old grabbed his opportunity with 468 runs in three Tests at an average of 93.60 and a strike rate of 93.41, with his three centuries including an 80-ball display in Rawalpindi. Brook wowed with his power and panache and now looks almost undroppable.
There is a way for England to get both in - drop wicketkeeper Ben Foakes and hand the gloves to either Pope, who filled in admirably for the first two Tests in Pakistan with Foakes first ill and then not selected, or Bairstow, who has long yearned to regain the gauntlets.
However, Foakes is the slickest keeper around and showed his skill with the bat with a second-innings 64 in Karachi so England could face some tough decisions if everyone is fit come Ashes time.
Seam-bowling-wise, the stocks are bulging.
A year on from being publicly slammed by then-bowling coach Jon Lewis about his lack of fitness, Robinson showed tremendous endurance in Pakistan to add to his other assets of height, bounce, accuracy and moving the ball both ways.
Forty-year-old Anderson feels he can carry on for a "number of years" under the exciting Stokes regime so at least one more summer should be no bother for a man getting better with age.
Stuart Broad, who missed the Pakistan series for the birth of his child, should be around, too. The way his eyes lit up when talking about the England environment during his early-morning stints in the Sky Sports studio suggested he was itching to get back amongst it and perhaps make David Warner his Ashes bunny once more.
Then there is Matthew Potts, who impressed during his debut English summer, plus with pitches in England generally nipping this way and that, we may also see Chris Woakes and Sam Curran. Woakes, don't forget, has a better Test bowling average in England than both Anderson and Broad.
England will hope to add a speedster or two as well, and if Mark Wood, Jofra Archer and Olly Stone are all fit - and that is a big if given their injury records - it would offer Stokes the ability to rotate and possibly play one in every game, giving the hosts added X-factor. You can't imagine Steve Smith, Marnus Labuschagne and co would relish seeing Wood and Archer at full pelt.
They may be less concerned about left-arm spinner Jack Leach, a man the Baggy Greens rather took apart in the previous Ashes series, but under Stokes' captaincy, and with attacking fields being given to him, the Somerset twirler has grown in confidence. At time of writing, he is the leading Test wicket-taker in 2022.
Another spin option is 18-year-old Rehan Ahmed, the leggie who has just become the youngest man to take a Test five-for on debut. We might not see him in The Ashes but if England feel he is ready, we know they won't be afraid to play him.
They are not afraid of anything - except draws.
It would, of course, be foolish to overlook Australia. They will present a formidable challenge. Bazball's biggest test to date.
You perhaps don't get better than Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon as a Test attack - England also know all too well not to take Scott Boland lightly after he razed them last winter - while the batting line-up contains the might of Smith and Labuschagne and an ever-improving Travis Head.
But Warner is struggling for form - he might not even make it to The Ashes - and opening partner Usman Khawaja is in form but ageing, plus Australia have not won a Test series in England since 2001.
It's too early to do a reverse Glenn McGrath and predict 5-0 England but fans should be confident it won't be 4-0 Australia as it was Down Under in 2021/22.
Back then, they were Tests but not really contests. The series six months from now should be far more competitive. Watch out, Australia. Ben Stokes' buccaneering boys want the Ashes back.
Watch the 2023 Ashes series live and exclusive on Sky Sports. The first Test is at Edgbaston from Friday, June 16.