Monthly Archives: September 2015

The glorious paradox of Ben Stokes

Ben_Stokes 2

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.

The impending international return of Mohammad Amir

 

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

A fall from grace can be a quick and somewhat startling affair, often consigning yesterday’s heroes to today’s scrapheap.

Take Milli Vanilli, the popular West German pop act, who suffered a spectacular fall from grace in 1990 when it was revealed that the band’s two ‘singers’, Robert Pilatus and Francis Morvan, actually had nothing to do with the records that had made them so famous in the first place. The pair had merely been recruited as frontmen, preferred to the ‘unmarketable’ vocalists who had recorded the album. Just days after a disastrous MTV performance lead to the revelation, the band had their Grammy stripped.

Sport has had its fair share of villains who have suffered equally irredeemable falls from grace. Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods are two modern examples who spring to mind. Like Milli Vanilli, both have failed to return to the top of their profession, professions that they once would have considered their own private fiefdom.

In August 2010, three Pakistani cricketers suffered their very own fall from grace, when they were found to have deliberately bowled no balls in exchange for dirty cash, during a test match against England– at Lord’s of all places. Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and an 18-year-old Mohammad Amir were the three shamed parties. All were banned for five years each, all received jail time.

Many of the cricket world will never forget that day at Lord’s, where the News of the World’s shocking expose collided with the end of a thrilling test match series (which England won 3-1). To this day, the story rightly serves as a warning to cricketers – and all three players were rightly harangued and shamed from all quarters.

Yet the story of the baby-faced Amir assumed an extra layer of tragedy, due to his fragile age and place in the Pakistani dressing-room hierarchy. Butt (then captain at the time) and Asif were both well-seasoned pro’s whose taciturn actions were not ambiguous, but with Amir it can be hard not to think he was badly manipulated, dragged through this regrettable ride through cricket’s Stygian underworld.

‘Please don’t let it be the kid,’ were the words of Sky’s Nasser Hussain on that day at Lord’s, reflecting the thoughts of cricket fans across the world. Amir had burst on to the international scene before he pulled the rug from out under his own feet. He had become the quickest bowler to reach 50 test match wickets (in 14 tests), and was ironically named man of the match at Lord’s for a brilliant 6fer, hours after the wildfire of scandal had engulfed the home of cricket. That was the end of his cricketing career for the near future. That was then.

This is now, and Amir is back. Although not on a world scale, the youngster has been reintroduced to the professional game, playing a string of T20 games in his homeland, with a fair degree of success. It seems highly probable that he will return to the national side at some juncture. His international ban ends this month. He would even be free to play against England, although he has not made the squad for next month’s series.

But is the cricketing world- fans and players alike- ready to accept Amir? Fans, especially those in England, may well decide to boo. It is their choice, and in a way it is fair. It was he that brought the game into such callous disrepute at Lord’s, and to some that act will never be forgiven. Many more fans will simply feel conflicted.

The player issue is perhaps even more pressing. How will he be treated in the Pakistan dressing room? Will he be treated like an outsider, a man who irrevocably let his country down? Or he will be treated as a new person, a man who has ultimately learnt and paid for his past crimes? Much will come down to the leadership fulcrum of the Pakistan team. The role of elder statesmen such as Misbah-ul-Haq (test captain), Shahid Afridi (ODI captain) and coach Waqar Younis will be crucial in the coming months, as reintegration talk becomes more pointed.

One thing that is beyond doubt is that Amir has served his time. A 5-year ban and a prison sentence was what the respective authorities deemed to be fair punishment, and that period has now come and gone. A look at other sports and it seems that Amir should be allowed to return to the international stage. Athletes from many different corners have returned after drugs bans, and football teams have often returned to the top after being punished for match-fixing.

Sport moves on, and second chances are usually granted. Cricket’s authorities must strive to tackle the ugly side of its game, which undoubtedly still looms large, but not at the expense of justice.

Another uncertainty about Amir’s return is the level of performance he can attain. His performances in T20 cricket appear solid enough on the surface, and on the evidence of restricted video footage, his action perhaps unsurprisingly hasn’t changed too much. A prolonged hiatus through the tender years of adolescence may have even reduced the chances of debilitating muscular injuries.

But international cricket is concentrated on fine margins, and it remains to be seen whether that extra yard of pace and the ability to control the swing so acutely remains. If Amir does return at the same level, it will be hard to contain that frisson of excitement every time he bounds to the crease in his trademark fashion, before releasing a thunderbolt with that rapid and beguiling left-arm.

It is five years since Amir took leave of the cricketing world that he had left such a vehement mark on in such a short space of time. Many will be pontificating over his return. But ponder this: is his return to the fold a bigger threat to the integrity of the game than the powers that be at the current big three? It was Giles Clarke who famously gave Amir that scornful look at Lord’s, but in the intervening period it is he and his cronies who have begun to systematically destroy the game.