Boycott, Hoult, Berry and Heffer on England v West Indies
Hard-working Durham star is ready to prove that a talented batsman and pace bowler can make a good England leader
It will be going against the grain. Of England’s 80 Test captains before Ben Stokes, only 12 have been pace bowlers or pacebowling all-rounders, and only one of that dozen – the late Bob Willis – has made a success of the job in that he won more Tests than he lost.
Going against the grain, however, and succeeding where no normal human being would have done, is what Stokes does. From the childhood moment when he climbed into his parents’ car to be driven from west Cumbria to Durham for midweek practice, he has summoned up the energy to become a force of nature. So, just because nobody in English cricket so far has batted, bowled pace and captained well – of the 23 Tests in which Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff led, they won two – do not bet against Stokes making a fist of it, starting against West Indies tomorrow.
Not one competitive ball has been bowled in England since last September, but during lockdown one of the main reasons for Stokes being what he is has become widely apparent. Many of those in Britain who have been putting their bodies on the front line have been immigrants: there might have been a misconception in some quarters that they worked less hard.
And nobody works harder in English cricket than Ben Stokes, as the media know all too well: when everyone else has finished netting, Stokes does extra laps of the ground, no matter how burning the Sri Lankan or West Indian sun, so that the advertised time of his press conference has always been an hour or so later than advertised.
So committed has Stokes been that nobody now sees him as a New Zealander, which is what he is by birth and was by upbringing until the age of 11.
Had he stayed there, he would no doubt have become a fine allrounder, batting at five behind Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor; but he would surely never have become a force of nature by driving himself the extra yards, in order to be assimilated in his adopted land. In the same way that two descendants of European families are perceived to embody Englishness – Elgar and AE Housman with his
A Shropshire Lad – Stokes has come to be accepted as the heartbeat of England’s cricket teams.
A reformed character, too. As he sat in the dock in Bristol Crown Court – taking an occasional sip of water, impassive on the surface, passionate underneath – Stokes knew he had blown whatever chance England had of regaining the Ashes in Australia in 2017-18. But since being found not guilty of affray, he could not have tried harder to make amends – “winning games for England” is his mantra, no personal goal – and I would not put three Ashes centuries past him in the winter after next, which would equal Sir Alastair Cook’s triumph in 2010-11.
This week, Stokes will be facing challenges he has never encountered, not even on the three occasions he captained Durham junior sides. As an all-rounder, he wants to lead England by example in all three departments – whereas Botham’s batting was less effective than normal when he was captain, and Flintoff ’s bowling.
Compartmentalising. Hitherto, in the field, he has been able to stand at second slip with a clear mind. In the warm-up game at Southampton last week he dropped the first catch to come his way: it was low to his right, and his first game of this season, but had he been thinking about the next bowling change or field placing a moment before?
His predecessors, Joe Root, Cook and Andrew Strauss, all chose to be general at first slip, where chances come far more simply than at second.
As one of four seamers, Stokes should not have to bowl too much, unless one of the others breaks down, which James Anderson has in two of his past three Tests. It has only been when Stokes has got the bit between his teeth on a flat pitch that he has bowled too much for his own good.
When he batted in the warm-up game, Stokes came in at 83 for three in the 35th over: not too bad a basis. But England’s top order this week will generally be tall, inexperienced and defensive (Joe Denly’s strike-rate sank to 35 per 100 balls last winter), and confronted by a world-class opening pair in Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel.
Stokes likes to play himself in as carefully as a specialist batsman but, as captain, might feel he has to raise the scoring rate, without Root to do it for him. It is a long downward spiral when a captain who is a free-spirited batsman ceases to play his natural game.
Watching Stokes react to these new challenges will make up for much of the time lost this summer. This chance to lead his adopted country crowns his redemption. He will be on his best behaviour, although it is just as well Marlon Samuels will not be present to rile him with a salute.
Nasser Hussain has told Cricinfo that Stokes’s workload is too much for him to be the England captain for a prolonged period, with the caveat that one should never bet against Stokes. In a few years’ time, however, after Root’s captaincy, Stokes might be hardly bowling at all, given the state of his knees. In that case, it will be a different equation, and I would not put it past Stokes as a batsman who bowls to succeed as England’s Test captain.
Main men: Ben Stokes (right) prepares to captain England in the nets yesterday while Ian Botham (below) was inspirational as a player, but struggled as leader