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The Insight Edge, With IG – Stokes’ Ashes Importance

Using data, analysis and insight is key to performance in both investing and cricket. In this analysis CricViz Analyst Ben Jones looks at the significance of Ben Stokes to England’s Ashes hopes, and how he can bring out the best in his teammates.

 


 “Oh bloody hell, that’s good.”

Those were, supposedly, the first words out of Joe Root’s mouth when he learned that Ben Stokes, England’s star all-rounder, felt he was fit and well to tour Australia this winter. While the intensity of the expletive might have varied a touch, you would imagine that every England fan around the country went for something along similar lines. This was huge.

Stokes’ absence from the initial squad was for mental health related reasons, issues – alongside a recurring finger injury – which had kept him out for the majority of the 2021 home summer. English cricket had braced itself for a second consecutive away Ashes series without Stokes, and the general air was of collective resignation, a pre-emptive sense of defeat and of struggle. It speaks to Stokes’ aura as a cricketer, both within the England dressing room and in the minds of the fans, that the return of one man has transformed the mood from dour pessimism to gentle, cautious optimism.

It’s not hard to understand why. Since the start of that “Summer of Stokes”, those heady months in 2019 when no-matter the format or situation England’s No.55 came through, very few players in Test cricket can match his record. Averaging 46 with the bat and 29 with the ball, Stokes has lifted himself into the top tier, standing alongside Ravindra Jadeja as the best Test all-rounders in the world. There’s no question that Stokes’ all-round ability raises England’s chances significantly.

Is Stokes Suited to Conditions?

There’s always been a lot of chat that Australians respect Stokes because they see a lot of ‘Aussie traits’ in him. The grit, the gnarl, the swagger, it all fits with the Australian self-image in a sporting sense. Yet in many ways, the comparison goes beyond the mental, given that Stokes’ game is extremely well suited to Test cricket in Australian conditions.

On a basic level, Stokes is a very good player of the short ball. While there is more to batting in Australia than just dodging and ducking high pace, their pitches do offer more bounce than anywhere else in the world, and being able to cope with deliveries reaching you chest height – both surviving and scoring off them – is a key element of finding consistent success in Australia. Stokes’ brutal recent record with the pull (averaging 96) and the cut (averaging 51) should serve him well.

Of course, Stokes’ opportunities to show that natural suitedness to Australian pitches has been limited, but England fans need look no further than South Africa, should they want evidence of how Stokes can perform in fast, bouncy conditions, against the Kookaburra ball. The average bounce in Australia is very similar to South Africa, with the stump-threatening length just 30cm different, and the effect being very similar. Back foot strokes take on more importance, as does scoring square of the wicket, two areas of batting where Stokes excels. It’s no surprise then that several of Stokes’ finest moments in an England shirt have come in the country whose conditions closely resemble Australia: his 258 in Cape Town, and his 120 in Port Elizabeth, are two of his best ever Test centuries, and an overall average of 52 offers further encouragement. 

Coming at this from a slightly different angle, less technical and more tactical, Stokes’ excellence in the first innings’ of matches could be key. In England, games are often low-scoring, with run-scoring similarly difficult across the five days of play; in Australia, there is slightly more emphasis placed on making big first innings scores to set the game up. Pitches are significantly flatter on Day 1, conditions are more physically taxing for the Test as a whole, and the sun has a greater effect on changing the surface itself across the five days. In the last four years no England batsman averages more in the first innings of Tests than Stokes does – he is naturally inclined towards big first innings runs, and conditions should only boost that.

Which Bowlers Will Worry Him?

While Stokes missed the 2017/18 tour, the dominance of England’s schedule by Ashes cricket has ensured that he has still played a huge amount of cricket against Australia, and against this particular Australian attack. England’s results in the three Ashes series Stokes has played have fluctuated (one defeat, one win, one draw), but Stokes’ record against the ‘Fab Four’ is overall very good. Against Cummins, Hazlewood, and Lyon, Stokes has matched very strong averages with an excellent scoring rate, and while his performance against Starc has been significantly worse, the left-armer is the bowler of the four who Stokes has encountered least often. On an individual level, Stokes has the twin benefits of previous success against a player: a rise in your own self-confidence, and a blow to that of the bowler.

Of course, that’s only part of the story. Against Hazlewood in particular, Stokes has been fortunate, best exemplified in but limited to his innings at Headingley. Around 20% of Hazlewood’s deliveries to Stokes have brought a false shot – that figure is slightly above the global figure for Test cricket, by no means indicating Stokes has struggled, but it puts that Bradman-esque average into context. Indeed, the only bowler of these four against whom Stokes has recorded a false shot percentage below the global average, is Nathan Lyon.

Equally, on a tactical level, Stokes will still face a stiff challenge from the two right-arm quicks. Not only are Hazlewood and Cummins outstanding Test bowlers, but both are comfortable coming round the wicket to left-handers; indeed, in recent years they’ve both done so about 50% of the time against LHB, and average in the mid to low 20s when doing so. Stokes’ own record from that angle of attack is much worse than his overall record against right-arm seamers.

How Important is Stokes’ Bowling?

Stokes’ rise from promising all-rounder to world leader has been driven primarily by his batting. While there have been moments of inspiration (Day 3 at Headingley, Day 5 at Cape Town), Stokes’ bowling highpoints have generally been most impressive as physical feats, as demonstrations of immense fitness and stamina, as opposed to the straightforward excellence of his batting work.

However, as a seamer in his own right his record is perfectly solid, albeit boosted by operating in helpful conditions for much of his career. Yet it’s also dragged down, in pure number terms, by having to do the donkey-work, bowling the dirty overs with the old ball, the round-the-wicket-bouncer phases of the game. In the last two years, more than a quarter of Stokes’ deliveries in Test cricket have been bouncers, a figure only Mark Wood can match in England colours. Stokes the batsman may be increasingly thoroughbred, but his bowling – and his role in this England attack – has remained resolutely that of the shire horse. 

The importance of Stokes’ bowling is maybe even greater than it first seems. Last summer, Australia introduced Cameron Green to their team. A seam bowling all-rounder, Green has attracted much attention in recent seasons primarily for his batting, and that was where he made an impact in his debut summer; 236 runs at an average of 34 may represent an underwhelming series for a No.6 batsman in Australia, but for a youngster finding his way against the world No.1, it’s a very solid start.

However, part of Green’s appeal was his bowling. His height is matched by considerable speed (an average of 137kph last year), and in Shield cricket has shown signs of being able to move the ball through the air and off the seam. In theory, his presence in the XI would allow Tim Paine to rest and rotate his pace attack more easily, removing the need for Cummins and Hazlewood to come back for fourth, fifth, sixth spells, with Green bowling the grunt overs. Yet against India last summer, that did not transpire. Green bowled 264 deliveries in the series, taking no wickets, and while he maintained a tidy economy rate of just 2.7rpo, the pressure dissipated whenever the Western Australian was thrown the ball. Cummins and Hazlewood bowled over after over as Paine sought to find inroads deep into the Sydney and Brisbane Tests, with ever-diminishing effects. The majority of blame for Cummins and Hazlewood’s fatigue should be laid at the doors of Starc and Lyon, but Green’s (quite understandable) ineffectiveness was a significant factor as well.

And so, Stokes’ importance with the ball is obvious. England have taken a large number of seamers on tour, and so rotation does feel likely. Yet England will be desperate to maintain the fitness of their frontline quicks, in particular Mark Wood, and so managing their workloads in-game will be a constant challenge for Joe Root. Jack Leach, should he perform to his potential, will help, but Stokes’ indefatigable spirit will have to play a part. 

However, to return to the previous point briefly, with the ball in hand, conditions are less helpful for Stokes. In England he’s often used as fourth change bowler, and even then he’s able to find swing and seam movement, due to the characteristics of the Dukes ball. While he bowls those long spells and sends down those bouncers consistently, Stokes’ wicket balls are the same as everyone else – full and good lengths, with a bit of movement, no more or less than the likes of Woakes, Robinson, or Broad.  In Australia, as a third or fourth change bowler, Stokes may have to perform a more disciplined role. 

****

Ultimately, it’s unfair to expect everything from Stokes this winter. His physical and mental wellbeing has only recently returned to levels that allow him to pick up a bat, let alone play international cricket. Very few players going into this series would say their preparation has been idea, on both sides, but Stokes’ claim is greater than most. His historic efforts in the 2019 Ashes ensured that England maintained their unbeaten home run in this contest up above 20 years – England owe Stokes, not vice versa. Yet given the balance he brings to the side, the mental hold he has over the Aussie attack, as well as the unequivocal class of his batting, it’s still hard to escape the idea that any English success on the coming tour will be underpinned by Stokes’ own success, with bat and with ball. It shouldn’t, for all sorts of reasons, but without question – England expects.

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