Stokes at 100: England’s field marshal quantifies the unquantifiable | Sports |


Stokes at 100: England’s field marshal quantifies the unquantifiable

One hundred Tests is “just a number”, said the man of the moment on the eve of his milestone match in Rajkot. It’s a sentiment that many sportsmen have expressed in the past, when the evolutionary fluke of a Base-10 counting system has intersected with what would otherwise be a random point in their careers, and suddenly they’re being asked to indulge in a self-evaluation exercise.

Few players, however, can have trotted out that somewhat clichéd retort with more authority than Ben Stokes, a man for whom numbers have been proven, beyond all reasonable doubt, to mean nothing.

It’s not simply that Stokes’ Test batting average of 36.34 disregards the fact that no cause is ever lost while he remains at the crease, or that his bowling mark of 32.07 cannot begin to express the relentlessness of his lengths when he embarks on another of those match-turning two- and three-wicket bursts. Stokes’ importance to England – and frankly, to Test cricket – has long since shed the need for statistical validation.

And yet, somehow, in the course of these past two years in particular, Stokes has hit upon a means to quantify the unquantifiable, to tot up those one-percenters of inspiration that have dotted his previous 99 Tests and present them as part of a higher body of work. In so doing, he’s allowed his genius to be examined to an extent that, for all their own greatness, his two England allround predecessors Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff were never quite able to replicate.

He’s achieved it, of course, by becoming England captain – for 21 Tests and counting now, more than a fifth of his Test appearances already, and therefore a more-than-ample sample size to extrapolate across the rest of his career.

Where once you might have had to rely on the arbitrary impact of a breathtaking catch, say, such as Stokes’ screamer at gully that remains the iconic moment of Stuart Broad’s 8 for 15 at Trent Bridge in 2015, now you can look at almost any aspect of England’s Test cricket since the start of his tenure in the spring of 2022 – from the confidence he imbued in Rehan Ahmed and Tom Hartley on debut, to the surge of a previously cowed batting line-up, and most importantly, to the transformation of England’s results from that nadir of one win in 17 that preceded this era – and see his influence seared on each and every moment.

That shift in emphasis has not precluded Stokes from being the centre of attention when needs must – perhaps most thrillingly at Lord’s last summer, when his furious fourth-innings 155 almost snatched the second Test from Australia’s grasp – nor from indulging in more of those Trent-Bridge-style flashes of brilliance, such as his critical run-out of Ravindra Jadeja at Hyderabad. But, like a proud parent hovering on the sidelines as the stabilisers come off the bike, his comfort in the reflected glory of a newly successful England team is becoming the ultimate testament to both his influence, and his self-assurance.

It was exactly a year ago, during England’s tour of New Zealand, that Stokes expressed the truth that best epitomises his tenure. “I’m at a stage now where I would much prefer to leave a mark on other people’s careers than look to make mine more established,” he said on the eve of the series opener in Mount Maunganui. “I’ve played a lot of cricket and done some great things with some great teams over the years. Being captain now, I’ve got a real desire to make the best out of the team that I’ve got, and the players who will come in the future.”

It was a statement of unusually altruistic intent, but also of extreme self-awareness – and one that has been borne out by his team’s subsequent displays. The bigging-up of the men around him has been the bigging-up of England as a whole – and that, as if to prove the point, includes those very same career stats for which Stokes would not otherwise care less. Despite deploying himself as a batter of last resort (and, during the manic early months of Bazball, as something close to a sacrificial madman, swinging blindly from the hip as if to prove that personal gain was irrelevant in this new team ethos) his batting average is more than two runs per innings better now that he is captain, while his bowling mark has slipped below 32 despite his dodgy knee limiting him to five wickets since the end of the 2022 summer.

And so, while Stokes’ ascent to the captaincy may only be the latest chapter in this journey of 100 Tests, already it is the most important part of the narrative. It has drawn on every moment that has gone before – the good, the bad and the downright ugly – and repackaged the learnings as if to access, as it were, a higher state of consciousness. How does one compete against a team whose only palpable reaction to pressure is joy? It’s a challenge that all of England’s opponents, India included, are still getting their heads around.

Notwithstanding his disdain for the landmark, only 15 players have previously played 100 Tests for England, which – as Stokes himself conceded – was proof, if nothing else, of his “longevity”. But, with respect to Botham’s high-rolling career, or James Anderson’s staggering redefinition of a fast bowler’s parameters, none has endured a more chequered journey to this summit than Stokes – a man whose extraordinary highs have been accompanied by a series of existentially significant lows.

Stokes has always shied away from an over-analysis of the Bristol incident in 2017 – he’s never knowingly used the word “redemption” to explain his extraordinary drive in the years that followed his acquittal for affray, most obviously of course in his annus mirablis in 2019. But there’s surely no moment that cuts more deeply into Stokes’ psyche than his gut-busting display at Edgbaston the previous summer – one of those trademark three-wicket bursts to break open India’s resistance and seal a thrilling 31-run win on the fourth and final morning of the match.

That spell might also have marked the final morning of Stokes’ Test career. Two days later, he would be standing trial at Bristol Crown Court, with the very real threat of a prison sentence hanging over him, and as Sky Sports’ cameras caught up with him on the edge of the pitch in the moments after the victory, his emotionally spent utterances expressed beyond all doubt what he stood to lose. “I don’t know what to be feeling right now…” he said. “Playing for England means so much.”

Therein was unequivocal proof of the importance of the struggle to Stokes, and insofar as it really matters, the following two years produced the absolute zenith of his career – just shy of 2000 runs at 43.00 including four centuries, plus 60 wickets at 27.43 and of course his starring role in the 2019 World Cup triumph. When, at Old Trafford in July 2020, he single-handedly squared the series against West Indies with twin scores of 176 and 78 not out, the latter as an opener and from just 57 balls in a fast-forwarded declaration push, he genuinely looked ready to become the best Test batter in the world.

But by then, Covid had kicked in, and the speed with which Stokes’ equilibrium crumbled was both shocking and instructive in equal measure. First came the slow death of his father Ged from brain cancer, an insidious disease taking hold on the other side of the world in New Zealand, which understandably caused Stokes to question his priorities at a time when England’s cricketers were going above and beyond to “keep the lights on” in their bio-secure bubbles. And then, after his tentative return in India the following spring, came his badly broken finger, sustained during an IPL fixture soon after the tour, that left him unable to grip his bat and fearing, with full justification, that his career would never recover.

Somewhere between those two extremes lies the truth that Stokes has accessed now. Playing cricket at the highest level is an extraordinary privilege that offers its participants the very best that life can offer, but it is not life and death itself.

Nor, indeed, was his experience in the 2016 World T20 final in Kolkata, when Carlos Brathwaite climbed through his guileless death over to slot four consecutive sixes and deliver a stunning victory for West Indies. That humiliation – which is what it was by the time Marlon Samuels had completed his graceless victory speech – would have crushed lesser players.

Instead, Stokes can now wear it as extreme validation of the emotions that the rookies around him will be feeling when it’s their turn to come under the pump. Much as he was able to tell Jofra Archer “this will not define your career” as Archer prepared to bowl the 2019 Super Over, so the likes of Hartley and Shoaib Bashir have benefitted from the knowledge that the worst that could possibly happen is not only walking tall among them, but calling every shot.

It’s not a new trait either. Even before he was captain, Stokes was adamant that the growth of the England Test team could not be achieved without pumping the tyres of its apparently lesser lights – even those who might now seem a long way distant from the Bazball ethos. At Cape Town in 2020 for instance, after another Stokes three-wicket gut-buster had ripped England to a thrilling final-session win against South Africa, he was adamant that his player-of-the-match award belonged to the long-forgotten Dom Sibley, the man whose maiden England hundred had set up the victory shot in the first place.

And so, here Stokes is at the start of his 100th Test – a literal field marshal, whose deliberate retreat from day-to-day miracle-making has enhanced his authority in a team that might otherwise still be in thrall to his genius and reputation. On the contrary, each man in Stokes’ midst is now empowered by the permission he grants them to go out and be today’s hero. And to deliver the only statistics that really count in the end. –Cricinfo



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