Ben Jones looks at how, no matter the situation, Ben Stokes is England’s man.
Ben Stokes is whatever you need him to be.
At the start of the day, England needed quick runs. The day was sprawled out in front of them, ready to be moulded into whatever England wanted. The game was in a still moment, malleable, ready to be thrown in any direction.
Ben Stokes seized that moment, as he tends to. Batting as aggressively as he could, eyes on that declaration, he went so, so hard. He threw away all pretence of protecting his wicket, throwing the bat at almost everything the West Indies sent at him. Since such records have been kept – 2006 – this was the most attacking innings by any Test opener that’s lasted 50+ deliveries, with 68% of Stokes’ shots demonstrably boundary attempts. He was doing what no opener in this era has done, and what few before will have even attempted. England wanted quick runs, and he gave them just that – this was the fastest any England batsman has reached 78, the score that Stokes ended on. For this situation, Stokes was England’s man.
And yet, is there any situation where Stokes is not England’s best option? The contrast between the two innings he played in this test was obvious, the versatility of his skill-set equally clear. A 300 ball game-setting ton in the first innings; a white-ball scented dash in the second. Only twice in history has a batsman made a pair of 50+ scores in the same Test with a bigger difference in strike rate between the two. If you want a man to bat long, Stokes is your man. If you want a man to go big, and quick, then Stokes is your man.
We’ve seen it before. At Headingley, he did all this in one innings, that acceleration from a solid standing start of his own making. And yet, it’s worth noting – the record for most balls left in an innings by an Englishman, is held by the same man who has the second fastest half-century, and the fastest 75+ score, of any England bat. Pick your moment, I’ll take your money that Stokes’ batting will suit it.
Except, of course, it’s not just his batting.
When Stokes arrived in the team, he was a swing bowler. His performance against the West Indies at Lord’s in 2017, when he found an average of 2.79° swing, is the most an Englishman has found in a Test innings in the last decade. He can present the seam, and move the ball through the air, like the best of them. He’s as skillful, in that role, as they come. If that’s what you want from him, Stokes will do that.
But such are the options that England have for swing bowlers, Stokes is rarely pushed down this path. In this Test, and in this current incarnation of the England attack, Ben Stokes is an enforcer. He delivered 91 bouncers in the Test, balls pitching 10 metres or further from the batsman’s stumps. Only twice since records began (in 2006) has an Englishman bowled more in a home Test, both of them Liam Plunkett, a bowler included in the team to perform this role and this role only.
If you want an enforcer with the ball, a man to stand chest to chest with the opposition and force them to stand tall, push them back in their crease with well placed physical intimidation, then Stokes is your man. His average speed in the Test was 133.1kph – the only bowler quicker was Shannon Gabriel. If you want heat, Stokes is your man.
His barrage to Jermaine Blackwood, a matchwinner playing with a fluency and control far greater than his effort at Southampton, was crucial. The dismissal just before the tea break ensured England’s task never grew too great, the odds never too stacked against them. On the final day, their WinViz never fell below 50%, propped up by Stokes’ brilliance.
England won this Test because of Ben Stokes. Just like Cape Town; just like Headingley; just like numerous Tests before, and no doubt numerous Tests to come.
Players like this come along rarely. So rarely, in fact, that the opportunity to mould them into their final form is so rare, that it’s understandable when captains and coaches find it hard to manage them. Stokes may have debuted in the England team at No.6 n Australia, but he spent much of his first home summer at No.8. Even England, who will have been following this talent throughout its growth, still weren’t quite sure what he was.
Right now, Stokes is everything England want him to be. He is at that perfect sweet spot of experience and physical capability, a player at his peak in the most sublime sense. He defines this England team, and he defines the sport in England. As Joe Root said this evening, “we are in the presence of greatness”. There is no questioning this. Nobody has taken more wickets in Tests this year; nobody has scored more runs. He is everything, to everyone, all the time.
It could be adrenaline in the veins, and people will always want to throw rocks at players whose greatness has not yet been consigned to the safety of a history book, but you can rightly argue that Ben Stokes is the most complete cricketer England have ever produced. He is quicker than Ian Botham ever was, with a greater range of batting gears. He’s a far superior to Andrew Flintoff even at his peak.
At Headingley last year, what unfolded was amazing because we knew Stokes could do it.
Just as, a few months earlier, what unfolded as Kusal Perera performed similar feats, was amazing because nobody thought he could. Stokes’ greatness is defined by the fact that the world believes in it.
Everyone believes in Ben Stokes, no matter the country you were born in or the crest on your chest. When a player hits these levels, they don’t exist within a nation, they don’t only play for the team whose colours they wear. If you like cricket, then Ben Stokes is yours.
Ben Stokes belongs to whoever wants him.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.