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England v West Indies

Why Ben Stokes could do with being a little more like BJ Watling

Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 4 minute read

Yas Rana looks at Ben Stokes’ post-Headingley form and argues that in recent times, Stokes has lacked the ruthlessness to take his batting up to a truly elite level.

Two England players have been out for scores of between 10 and 50 on 10 occasions in their last 16 innings. One of them has two scores of more than 70 in that time, the other has three. One of them is Joe Denly, who is supposedly hanging onto his England career with a piece of string, and the other is Ben Stokes, England’s talisman and who Nasser Hussain today described as England’s best batsman.

Not that long ago, England were 249-3. Boasting a growing but precarious lead of 135 with conditions as good for batting as they had been at any point in the match, England were entertaining the realistic prospect of declaring at some point the following morning to give themselves a decent shot of victory.

But for the second time in the match, Jason Holder outfoxed his opposite number. Seeing Stokes shuffle across his stumps, Holder followed the left-hander and the England captain ended up prodding a ball on an eighth stump line straight into the hands of gully. It was a nothing shot, really; Stokes was neither defending his stumps nor was he pouncing on something loose.

His dismissal exposed England’s fragile lower middle order who crumbled in the face of Alzarri Joseph and Shannon Gabriel’s pair of impressively energetic spells late in the day. England’s player of the day Zak Crawley, who registered a career-best score for the fifth Test in a row, fell shortly after, before Jos Buttler continued his miserable recent run of form in Test cricket. Ollie Pope wasn’t able to execute the kind of rescue act we became accustomed to in South Africa and Dom Bess recorded his fourth score of less than four in his last five Test innings. Stokes’ dismissal opened the door wide open for the West Indies just as England looked likely to slam it shut for good.

It may seem harsh to focus on Stokes. After all, Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Joe Denly and Crawley will all feel they gave their wickets away to varying degrees, too. He has scored more runs than any other England player this match, and taken more wickets too. He may yet win them the game with the ball.

But Stokes deserves a higher degree of scrutiny. A batsman capable of producing the moments of historic brilliance he delivered in 2019 ought to be treated differently to the six batsmen around him in the top seven, all still finding their feet in the Test arena. This England team, particularly in Joe Root’s absence, needs Stokes to grab matches by the horns and pile on match-defining scores. Pretty on-drives may stir the soul but they don’t win Test matches.

Twice in this game, Stokes has fallen in 40s moving across his crease looking to dictate the play against Holder, not withstanding the two times he was dropped on day two. This is not a new problem either.

In England’s two most recent defeats – against South Africa at Centurion and against New Zealand at Mount Maunganui, Stokes has been guilty of getting out softly at crucial junctures when well set. At Centurion, Stokes drove wildly on 35 off Anrich Nortje moments after the dismissals of Denly and Bairstow and at Mount Maunganui on a desperately slow wicket that BJ Watling and Mitchell Santner would share a 261-run partnership on later in the Test, Stokes failed to convert his 91 into a match-defining score. At times, maybe, Stokes could do with being a bit more Watling.

Stokes is clearly in the midst of a peak that few players ever reach. Unquestionably, Stokes is able to influence Tests in a way that only a handful of cricketers have ever been able to. And while his Test batting average in the last 12 months is an excellent 49.65, that only ranks ninth for batsmen worldwide in that time (min. 500 runs). Is that really a fair reflection of a player of his quality at the height of his powers?

Too often in recent times for a player so good, Stokes has let England slip at key points as he looked to take the attack to the opposition. This is part of what makes Stokes so alluring, yes, but curbing those attacking instincts just a while a longer and making the most of his starts could be what takes Stokes, and England, to that next level. Had England put on another 50 runs before their collapse, they’d arguably be going into the final day as favourites. Instead they’re very much on the back foot such are the margins at play. Stokes may yet be able to dig them out of the hole. But it would be one partly of his own making.

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