3:32 AM IST
George Dobell at Old Trafford
It was telling that Ben Stokes was the first to reach the pitch on the fifth morning.
The West Indies team were still in a huddle near the edge of the boundary. Joe Root, his partner, was struggling to keep up. Even the umpires were a few steps behind.
But Stokes meant business. And whether he wanted to send a message to his opponents or simply couldn’t wait to get started, his presence – a big cat prowling after its prey – was fitting. Whenever England are facing questions, Ben Stokes provides the answers. He is their man for all sessions.
First the bald statistics: in this match, Stokes scored 254 runs and claimed three wickets. Which sounds pretty good in itself. But it hardly skims the surface of the value he offers his team.
In the first innings, Stokes produced the slowest century (it took 255 deliveries) and the longest innings (it occupied 356 balls) of his first-class career. It was, for most of the time, a masterclass in denial and accumulation and went a long way towards setting up England’s match-winning platform.
In the second innings, we saw a different Stokes. With England needing quick runs to set up a declaration, he thrashed a 36-ball 50; the quickest half-century by an England opener in Test history. The rest of England’s batsmen, struggling with the two-paced surface and some defensive cricket from West Indies, contributed two fours between them.
It’s worth comparing it with Root’s innings. Root has scored more ODI centuries than any England player in history. But here, unable to get the ball away on a begrudging surface, he had to be content with pushing singles and giving Stokes the strike. Twice Root made twos – one of them when he dabbed a ball to gully and was rewarded with an overthrow – but otherwise he had to be content with 18 singles. Stokes, skipping down the pitch and driving Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel and Jason Holder for sixes, looked in a different league.
It will be Stokes’ batting that gains the attention, but his bowling is almost as valuable. Just as in Leeds last year, when he kept England in the game with a marathon 20-over spell, here he broke the key partnership in both innings. Despite not being asked to bowl until the 51st over of West Indies’ first innings, he generated surprising pace and hostility from the slow wicket with a soft ball and claimed the wicket of Kraigg Brathwaite as a reward.
It was similar in the second innings. All the other bowlers – the three seamers and the spinner, Dom Bess – had been called upon. The ball, now 29 overs old, had lost a bit of its hardness and its shine. Jermaine Blackwood and Shamarh Brooks were starting to look ominously comfortable – they milked Bess for 43 runs from 60 balls – and West Indies were probably one good partnership from safety.
But Root is never out of options with Stokes in his team. Bowling round the wicket and aiming for the rib area, Stokes forced Blackwood into fending at one which looped towards the keeper off his glove. The hundred stand was broken and England were able to surge to victory.
Perhaps a more telling moment came earlier in the over. With most of the field – which at various times included leg slip, leg gully, fly slip, short-leg and deep square leg – set for the short ball, Stokes was obliged to chase the ball himself when Blackwood punched one back past him. Not many bowlers pull off a sprawling save off their own bowling on the long-off boundary; it says something for Stokes’ commitment that it wasn’t even unique in his career.
He did something similar in Sri Lanka. Delivering the final over of an exhausting hot day in Colombo, Stokes pulled off a full-length dive on the boundary to save three runs when the ball was hit back past him. Trevor Bayliss bumped into him later. He was just leaving the gym. “He’s a mad man,” Bayliss said with good-natured awe. It’s no surprise that other players – most recently Dom Sibley – talk of Stokes as an inspiration to improve their own fitness.
It’s always been said – and it’s generally been true – that the stats don’t do Stokes justice. But perhaps they are starting to do so. For from February 2019, Stokes has played 14 Tests, scored four centuries (and six half-centuries) while averaging 62.45. He’s also taken 31 wickets at 29.90. Those are Kallis-esque figures. But Jacques Kallis, for all his formidable skills and reliability, was rarely accused of adaptability.
Stokes is now one of only five men to have scored a minimum of 250 runs and claimed a minimum of three wickets in a single Test. It’s a pretty arbitrary statistic, really. But it provides some indication of his value – his ubiquity, really – to his side. It’s an achievement never managed by Sir Garfield Sobers, Imran Khan, Kallis or Sir (soon to be Lord) Ian Botham.
Perhaps a more useful indicator of Stokes’ all-round skill is given by the difference between his batting (38.58) and bowling (31.73) averages in Test cricket. It’s up to 6.9 now. Botham, by comparison, had a difference of 5.1. Sobers leads the way with a difference of 23.7.
But these sort of statistics will never reflect the true value of players like Stokes. They don’t show how he changed styles with the bat as his team required it. They don’t show how he had the ability to deputise for Jofra Archer in this Test as the man to deliver the short-ball barrage when required.
They don’t show how, when England were without an injured James Anderson at Nottingham in 2015, Stokes had the ability to claim a six-wicket haul as a swing bowler. They don’t show how he’s bowled spin in Asia, how he never sees the new ball (he’s now opened the batting in Tests but never the bowling) and that he is probably England’s best fielder in any position.
There is a theory that, by using Stokes as a bowler of last resort – usually a battering ram – Root perhaps does not get the best out of bowling. But it slightly misses the point: the beauty of Stokes is that he allows other players to be used as best suits them and then fills in the holes as required. That versatility is such an asset for a team.
It’s no surprise Root described himself as a “very lucky captain” to have such a player. He’s lucky to have his loyalty, too. For not every high-profile player would deputise as captain for a game and then give the job back without a second thought. Root will be as relieved as anyone to hear Stokes reported no serious issues after being unable to complete an over towards the end of the game. He is expected to be fit to play in Friday’s decider.
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Certainly Stokes has no complaints. “Absolutely not,” he replied when asked if he minded the backbreaking requirement of 11-over spells full of bouncers. “I’ll give everything for this team,” he said. He just wants to be in the action. It’s not so long ago that he insisted on replacing Sir Alastair Cook, his captain at the time, as short-cover as the ball kept going there. He spent a while at silly-point on the final day here.
For all Stokes’ excellence, he was not the only architect of this victory. Sibley’s century played a huge role in setting the platform, while Stuart Broad’s spell of 3 for 1 with the second new ball revived a game that West Indies were close to making safe. Chris Woakes, who claimed his 100th Test wicket among five in the game, had a quietly impressive match, too. In England, at least, he has a better Test bowling average (22.90) than even Broad (26.53) and James Anderson (23.85).
But Stokes is the beating heart of this team. He gives it balance and resilience and options and fight. He ensures no cause is ever lost and no problem is ever without a solution. He is a great cricketer at the peak of his powers. English cricket is lucky to have him.
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