Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
Ben Stokes should be considered England’s best ever left-handed batsman
Stokes can defend as well as any of his gritty predecessors, and is a strokemaker of supreme orthodoxy
It is the big stage, and the time for the hero to grab some global attention. Kevin Pietersen sensed that, and Ben Stokes is now filling his boots as England’s super-bat, the one who can do what everyone else cannot.
The first innings of the second Test of a series is when most eyes are watching, or thus Pietersen must have thought. England would usually be 1-0 down after the opening Test, which remains their habit, and the call was for someone to turn the tide.
Pietersen scored nine of his 23 Test centuries in the first innings of the second Test of a series, and most were matchwinners, several of them double-hundreds. Stokes’s motivation might be slightly different from Pietersen’s, but if the impact is the same, England will be happy for several years to come.
Among England’s righthanded batsmen through the ages, Pietersen has surely been the most talented in the sense of being able to play the widest range of shots. Stokes, even though his motivation is so different from Pietersen’s (“winning games for England is Stokes’s mantra”) should now be recognised as England’s most talented lefthanded batsman, ever, if he has not been already.
It is a smaller pool, admittedly. Lefthanded batsmen were not encouraged in the conformist mid-Victorian era when Test cricket began, and the first century for England by a lefthander was not made until 1911-12, but Stokes deserves the palm after the addition of patience has completed his repertoire.
Stokes can defend as well as any of England’s dogged lefthanders have done, like Alastair Cook, John Edrich or Graham Thorpe. He did it in the first half of his Headingley masterpiece last summer, and he did it again here to manoeuvre England into position on day one with Dominic Sibley. Has any English lefthander been so watertight at the start of his innings, when Stokes shows the bowler his batmaker’s name?
And Stokes can attack as brilliantly as any of England’s lefthanded strokemakers ever has, whether David Gower or Frank Woolley, the maker of that century in 1911-2, and neither of them could reverse-sweep spin as Stokes did to post three figures - or reverse-sweep pace bowlers as Stokes tried to do when he finally got himself out for his second-highest Test score.
Stokes has the strokes of a batsman who has scored a hundred in the Indian Premier League; who has scored 258 against South Africa from only 198 balls; who scored 74 off 45 balls at the climax of the last Headingley Test. But the secret of his latest innings was that he reined himself in, left the ball a lot, waited for the full-length ball, then drilled it in the V between mid-on and midoff, or once over mid-on.
A high backlift, strong wrists, an astute cricket brain and the capacity to play straight if not always the willingness to do so in the past: it is a wonder this was only his tenth century in his seven-year Test career. The first came in only his second Test, in Perth, when he made England’s only century of that spectacularly unsuccessful series; when he looked not only Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris in the eye but the cracks in the WACA pitch, and delivered a century of supreme orthodoxy.
That is the essence of Stokes. He looks a bit rough, and his bowling is a bit rough and ready, yet his batting is orthodoxy itself. He is not only the best lefthander England have had but the most classically correct, as if he had been born in the Canterbury in Kent, not in New Zealand, and attended the same school as Colin Cowdrey.
So why was Stokes’s Test average no more than 36 before this game, now nudged up to 37, still the domain of the good not great? Because he is so selfless and because he has never given a hoot for his own statistics. To certain English batsmen through the ages, red ink has been irresistible: no matter if England lose, provided he remains not out and enhances his average.
Once in a Test in Sharjah Stokes ruptured himself and batted down at number ten in his second innings: a golden opportunity for a neat not-out 20 and up his average a notch. Instead, he launched himself at the target - England needed over 100 with only James Anderson to come - and got stumped. But there was no doubting his honourable intentions.
Having scored a century in Perth in his debut series of 2013- 4, how many would Stokes have scored on England’s last Ashes tour, had he not been banned for that nightclub incident? And how many will he score in 18 months’ time, in his batting prime, aged 30? If Jofra Archer is by then being given the first over instead of Anderson or Stuart Broad, and Stokes the batsman keeps progressing from good to great to the best ever and beyond, England have a chance.