@Yas_Wisden 4 minute read
Ben Stokes’ return in time for the Ashes is a complete game-changer.
Not so much that England will start as favourites –they’re still some distance away from that – but in that it gives England plausible hope for a competitive series Down Under, something that’s only happened once this century.
Stokes’ lack of recent cricket should temper expectations but it’s hard not to get a little bit excited. A few months ago we were faced with the very real prospect of the series not happening at all, then the possibility of England effectively putting out a B team. Even when the 17-man squad was announced there was a national shrug of the shoulders, a collective appreciation of the hopeless, familiar inevitability of what was to come. Now, a modern England great who thrilled among the carnage of his debut tour in 2013/14 as a 22-year-old will finally get a chance to leave his mark on an away Ashes series once more – a tantalising prospect.
From an English perspective, that’s not the only Stokes-related narrative to get excited for. His return also leaves open the prospect of England’s two leading cricketers – Stokes and Joe Root – joining forces at their respective peaks at the same time. Remarkably, for a pair whose careers have been so intertwined, this is something that’s never really happened before.
The pair have been England teammates for over a decade, both competing in the England U19 team that went to the 2010 U19 World Cup and then made their Test debuts within a year of each other soon after– Root in December 2012, Stokes in December 2013. Fast forward the best part of a decade and the pair are England’s Test captain and vice-captain, and are so regularly the players who lift a turbulent and underperforming batting unit England out of the mire.
But they have seldom been at their best at the same time, if at all.
From Root’s post-Australia recall in 2014 to his first year as England captain in 2017, he was one of the very best Test batters in the world – in that four-year period, he averaged 57.56 from 49 Tests. Few English batters have ever enjoyed such sustained spells of prolific run-scoring.
Meanwhile, while very much an established member of the England team, Stokes was still developing as a Test cricketer. And although there were glimpses of what was to come – his hundreds against South Africa in 2016 and 2017 and his Lord’s ton against New Zealand in 2015 – there wasn’t quite the belligerent consistency that defined his post-2019 World Cup apex.
At the beginning of the 2019 Ashes, his averaged 33.89 with the bat and 31.92 with the ball. Good numbers, sure – very few players average more with the bat than they do with the ball – but nothing spectacular either.
Then a flick switched, a World Cup was won and Stokes rose to a level few all-rounders have ever reached. From the start of the 2019 Ashes to the end of 2020, he averaged 53.16 with the bat and under 30 with the ball in a remarkable 15-Test spell. That run happened to coincide with Root’s leanest spell since his 2014 recall – across 17 Tests, he registered a solitary century, his 226 against New Zealand on a lifeless Hamilton track.
In 2021, Root’s annus mirabilis as a Test batter, Stokes has played just four Tests, all on the tour to India where, aside from the first Test at Chennai, scores were generally on the low side and quicks were barely needed.
There are no guarantees that Root will pick up where he left off this summer in Australia. Nor can we presume Stokes will return to the levels he produced over a year ago. But there is the tantalising possibility that both might. Just as Stokes’ comeback gives England hope rather than a likelihood of victory, it also provides the rare prospect of seeing two England greats at the very top of their game at the same time.