So often a key figure in England cricket’s latest resurrection, so often a symbol of the inconsistencies that still blight them, Ben Stokes has assumed a vital role under Paul Farbrace and Trevor Bayliss- and the ride looks set to continue this winter…
‘‘What England did with him is like telling Cristiano Ronaldo to play at right back…He could’ve won you the World Cup.’’ Paul Collingwood was not mincing his words when asked for his views on the omission of Ben Stokes from England’s World Cup squad. Stokes himself had been venting his own personal fury in a slightly different manner- bludgeoning 151 off 86 balls for England Lions against South Africa A, an innings including 15 sixes.
Fast forward a month and a Stokes-less England were being dumped out the tournament by the not quite so hopeless Bangladesh, ending the tournament as meekly as they had started it. Collingwood, and many others both in the media and the general public, had been vindicated. Stokes could, and maybe would have made a telling difference.
Trouble is, up until the World Cup, Stokes’ ODI performances hadn’t warranted inclusion. In the 24 games he had played before the squad announcement, he had averaged 15.66 with the bat. In the series preceding the announcement- against Sri Lanka- his bowling was the big concern as he sent down eight wicketless overs at an economy rate of 10.
The issue of him batting down the order was somewhat justified (he batted number 8 in his two innings against SL), but it is also worth remembering what an awful 2014 Stokes had with the bat overall. Earlier in the year the Durham all-rounder had broken his hand punching a locker during a tour of the Caribbean, a mark of intense frustration which pointed quite obviously to his run of low scores. In the summer that followed, Stokes was omitted from the England squad mid-series against India, having accumulated three ducks on the trot.
Hapless is a word that barely covers many of his performances for England during that period, so to say there was a genuine sense of mystification when he was left out of the World Cup simply highlights the paradox that is in Ben Stokes. Capable of everything, and yet capable of nothing.
After a successful summer for both individual and team, Stokes is now ensconced in the England set-up. It’s how it always should have been. Stokes has played every game this summer. He has looked altogether at home. England’s fastest centurion at Lord’s against New Zealand, following an almost run-a-ball 92 in the first innings. A match winner with the ball in the same game.
Later in the summer, with the Australians about, Stokes once again rose to the fore at crucial moments. Important runs in the first test, a dogged 87 at Lord’s amid collapse, and a spell of 6-36 at Trent Bridge to seal the Ashes deal. But in typical fashion, these telling moments have been interspersed by moments of nothingness. Three more ducks to add to the ever-increasing tally, accompanied by large spells of inconsequential bowling.
Stokes is now an Ashes winner, and deserves praise for his meaningful contributions. But had he ended up on the losing side, his capricious performances may have been preyed upon. Must be more consistent for a number six batsman, must be more consistent for a fourth seamer. This is the paradox of Ben Stokes.
Stokes’ ODI figures for the summer also exhibit his inconsistencies and promises in one. Batting at number five against Australia and NZ, Stokes averaged 29.1 in 10 innings, scoring one half-century. Across both series, he took 12 wickets at an average 31.91, going at 6.27 runs per over. He now averages 20.14 with the bat, with two half-centuries in 34 matches. He has 32 wickets in that time at an average of 34.24, at an economy of 6.22 per over.
They are not figures that would take a side to World Cup glory, especially the haunted bunch that Eoin Morgan inherited from Alistair Cook. Stokes’ latest performances might not even keep him in the one-day side. Taylor may have done enough to stay at three, yet Root has to and will find a way back into the line-up. With his bowling not all-important, Stokes may find himself out of the middle order.
As Yogi Berra once said, it would be be déjà vu all over again. Stokes may warm the bench. The problem is, it does feel a bit naïve, maybe even stupid, to drop him again. We’ve been here before, haven’t we? It feels a more of a risk to drop him than to play him. It isn’t necessarily a question of merit; it is a question of necessity. To miss out on one of those awe-inspiring knocks would be harrowing. This is the paradox of Ben Stokes.
This winter will prove a litmus test for this burgeoning England team, and few players will play as big a role as Stokes. As Telegraph columnist Jonathan Liew points out, winning the Ashes is still a milestone, but due to the regularity with which they are now played, it is not a ‘career-defining’ milestone. This England team must win on the road to become great. Only South Africa of the modern day sides has an impressive away record.
England hinted at greatness with wins over Australia and India, only for Pakistan to interject with a 3-0 win over Strauss’s men in the UAE in-between. Back to back wins over Pakistan and South Africa, on the back of an Ashes win, would be unexpected and stunning.
If they are to do so, you feel Stokes will have to be influential. Being influential does not necessarily mean being consistent, and given his career path so far, consistency may be a little too much to ask. It is up to the top five to provide as much stability as possible, and in turn it will be up to the frontline bowlers to shoulder regular wicket-taking responsibility. Stokes is there to sprinkle some belligerent magic on both facets. A hundred here, a five-wicket haul there. In short: match-winning performances.
The talent is there for consistent performances, but maybe we hope for them to come rather than expect them. Maybe Stokes isn’t set-up to be that way. Maybe he is set up to dominate individual matches as opposed to whole series. Thing is, none of us are quite sure.
He might play a KP at Mumbai style innings to defeat Pakistan. He might nail the reverse swinging delivery and wreak havoc amongst the South African middle order. He might punch a locker, or a ball away from the stumps for that matter. The options are as infinite as they are spectacular.
The Ben Stokes paradox is set to continue. It should be embraced.