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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By Scyld Berry CHIEF CRICKET WRITER

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

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