@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read
Ben Stokes was named Player of the Match at Old Trafford, and showcased a new sensibility with both bat and ball, writes Ben Gardner.
Today wasn’t about Ben Stokes. Today was about James Anderson, etching his name onto yet another record list, three wickets from the James Anderson End moving him past Glenn McGrath as international cricket’s most prolific seam bowler. Today was about Ollie Robinson, putting all the fitness issues and the attitude concerns behind him, bowling quicker than he has before in an England shirt to claim 4-43. Stokes came on as fourth change and restricted himself to one spell, broken only by tea. But it was he who broke the game open, removing the only two South Africans to make it to 40 in the match. And if the performance reminds Stokes of everything he can be, it will have been worth even more still.
England’s Test captain was the star yesterday, making his first century and playing his best innings as skipper, and the documentary about his career (which came out on the same day as that maiden ton, who writes his scripts etc.) dominated the buildup. And even without a statement individual performance, he has bestrode this summer, crafting this England team into the most Stokesian possible version of itself.
His own approach has been central to this, proving that, in the captain’s eyes, there is no such thing as going too hard. But his ultra-aggression has also been among the most debated aspects of the McCullum era. And much of the criticism levelled at Stokes, before this Test, for his batting, could equally apply to his efforts with the ball.
At his best, Stokes is arguably England’s most versatile bowler, capable of extracting reverse, of hooping the new ball, of cranking it up, of keeping it dry. But recently the short ball has been his preferred mode of attack, setting the field deep and aiming for the head again and again. It’s attacking. It’s very new England. But it’s only had varying success. Against New Zealand, he averaged 75 with the ball. At Lord’s, he claimed three wickets – two with short balls, one with the bouncer trap set up – but also went at nearly four an over. It’s felt as if Stokes has seen himself as the workhorse and the battering ram, deciding he needs to offer something different to the rest, rather than approaching a scenario on its own terms and formulating a plan accordingly.
Even today, the temptation is to focus on the effort itself, rather than the skill. Stokes bowled 14 overs either side of tea. Six before, eight after. He ensured the other quicks could rest before the second new ball. Anderson and Robinson, refreshed, wreaked havoc.
But in skill and intelligence, Stokes’ spell was the equal of either of them. Having started off with the now-traditional bouncer bevy, he soon settled into a groove, prodding, testing, varying his length and line, never allowing South Africa to settle. He began to locate some outswing, and ventured fuller. In his sixth over, and his last before tea, he had his man, pulling back his length and snaking a beauty past Rassie van der Dussen’s outside edge, grazing it as he did so. If only he’d realised. There was no appeal, and South Africa reached the interval with the fifth-wicket stand unbroken.
Even without the breakthrough, however, Stokes had cast a fire blanket over the game. In six overs he conceded eight runs. The new ball was looming on the horizon, and South Africa were still trailing by plenty. After the break, the pressure told.
Van der Dussen inside-edged Stokes’ first delivery past his stumps, and fiddled at the third. The game had been cracked open. Kyle Verreynne flashed past the cordon and then pulled a rare short ball for four. And then, in Stokes’ eighth over of 14, came a true snorter, veering in, lifting, contorting Keegan Petersen, ripping the glove and going through to Ben Foakes, already smiling as he caught the ball. Stokes kept probing, but sensed this wasn’t the moment for all-out attack. Six more overs cost just 11 runs. The new ball arrived, and Stokes took his jumper.
This was Test cricket being put on pause rather than played on fast forward, and Stokes was central to it. After England’s first-Test defeat, Brendon McCullum suggested that they might need to go harder, a piece of bravado that now looks like another canny piece of misdirection.
We may never know what was discussed behind closed doors in the Long Room – at least, not until Stokes’ next doco drops – but at Old Trafford, we saw a more considered, nuanced approach, from England and from their captain. There were periods of resistance – Zak Crawley’s vigil was praised by Stokes after the game. There was time bided before attacking. There was a second new ball reached without England at 300. There was a malleability of method depending on the game situation.
Are England attempting to redefine Test cricket, playing in a way that suits the players they have, or just on a hot streak before an inevitable mean reversion? Wherever the McCullum era might end up, England won’t be the best version of themselves without Stokes at the heart, defining matches with the bat and turning them with the ball. Old Trafford saw him do both.