10:46 AM ET
George Dobell in Port Elizabeth
Sometime over the last few months – maybe during that afternoon at Lord’s, maybe during that afternoon in Leeds and maybe during that long day in Cape Town – it has become pretty obvious that, in Ben Stokes, we are now watching a great allrounder at the peak of his powers.
We’ll never be able to measure the true value of a cricketer like Stokes by the statistics. Just as you can’t judge a hospital by its profit and loss margins or a doctor by how many patients they see.
But you suspect, when we come to look back at Stokes’ career, the World Cup may be seen as a watershed moment. Before that, Stokes was a player full of potential. He had enjoyed some wonderful moments – not least that double-hundred in Cape Town – but there was a sense that there was more to come.
Since that moment, there has been a sense that, whatever else happens in Stokes’ career, his reputation has been made. On the biggest stage, under the greatest pressure, he delivered. It will be in every review of his career when he retires. It will be in his obituary. There is no taking it away from him. Knowing that may well have taken the pressure off his shoulders in a significant way.
The numbers back up this theory. Since the World Cup, Stokes has now scored three centuries in nine-and-a-half Tests at an average of 54.62. There have been four half-centuries (including a score of 91 against New Zealand) in there, too. He is now the second highest run-scorer in Test cricket since the start of 2019; albeit he has enjoyed more innings than the likes of Steve Smith.
He has added the consistency to his game that has lifted him from the ranks of dangerous to genuinely world-class. There are no obvious weaknesses. This doesn’t feel like a blip; it feels like the new normal. He now has nine Test centuries form 62 Tests; the same number of centuries from the same number of games as Ted Dexter and Robin Smith. As a batsman, at least, Stokes appears to have reached fulfilment.
Joe Root was asked about Stokes’ batting ahead of this game. He reckoned the breakthrough was down to a mentality change: an understanding of how good he could be and how much this young side needed him to make substantial contributions. No doubt there’s something in that, too. Stokes has looked more prepared to play himself in – remember that patient start in Leeds? – before allowing himself to attack.
Promoting him to No. 5 in the line-up may well have played a part in that, too. Yes, he still has a role – and an important one – as a bowler. But he now fills a specialist batting position. The expectations upon him may have helped bat with the discipline required to optimise his talent.
But it’s all very well having the mentality. Unless you have the skills to complement it, progress will be limited. And if we really want to understand Stokes’ batting, we probably have to go back a bit further. The real breakthrough in Stokes’ career – his career as a batsman, anyway – came ahead of the Test tours to Bangladesh and India in late 2016.
Stokes has pretty much always been a fine player of fast bowling. Remember that maiden century? It came in his second Test on perhaps the fastest (and most cracked) pitch in world cricket – the WACA – and against a top fast bowler (Mitchell Johnson) at his very best. He routinely murders the short ball. It remains a mystery that bowlers try to bounce him.
His weakness was against spin bowling. Like Andrew Flintoff before him, he was sometimes left groping in the air when confronted by quality spin and in situations where he was made to think rather than react. All too often, he responded by attempting to slog bowlers out of the attack; all too often it led to his dismissal.
Unlike Flintoff, he found a way to deal with it. Ahead of that tour, he worked hard (with the coaches at Durham and England) on his defensive game against spin. And so successful was he that he scored a century in Rajkot and made half-centuries in Chattogram and Visakhapatnam.
No longer was he forced to attempt to hit his way out of trouble. Instead he could give himself time to settle into an innings. Time to take a look at the bowling and acclimatise to the pitch. Quality offspin may still present some challenges but, knowing he has the defensive game to get through such sessions has given Stokes the confidence to know he can combat just about whatever is thrown at him these days. There’s no need for those slogs. He can wear attacks down and wait. It’s what ‘proper’ batsmen do.
The following English summer – the summer of 2017 – brought Test centuries against West Indies and South Africa, as well as four more half-centuries. His arrival as a top-class Test batsman should have been confirmed.
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But then came the Bristol incident. There’s no need to go into again here save to say, it set him back every bit of a year. Not only was he not considered for selection for several months – the Ashes series he missed at his peak may still smart – but when he returned he was a more self-conscious, more circumspect more deliberate batsman for a while. Yes, England played on some tough wickets. But it also took time to rediscover the mixture of rigour and freedom that we see now. It took time to put it behind him.
He has now. He has proved he warrants selection as a specialist batsman. He has proved he can score runs in all scenarios and against all attacks. And, aged 28, the best – as a batsman, at least – should still be ahead of him.
The really encouraging thing, from an England perspective, is that this piece has hardly even referred to his bowling. Well, until now. And only 11 men have taken more Test wickets in the world since the start of last year. Only 10 days or so ago, he bowled England to victory in Cape Town.
But it’s as a batsman that Stokes intimidates bowlers. It’s as a batsman that he empties bars and sells tickets. As a batsman, he really is starting to look like one of the best in the world.
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