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England v West Indies

Yes, we really are seeing one of the great careers play itself out

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read

In the second England-West Indies Test at Manchester, Ben Stokes delivered another performance to confirm what everyone all ready knew already, that he is one of the game’s greatest ever all-rounders, writes Ben Gardner.

There was a moment on the final afternoon when, having been driven back down the ground, Ben Stokes found himself chasing the ball all the way back to the boundary, at full sprint, and diving to claw it back in field. The outfield was slow, and he didn’t quite succeed in his pursuit, but it was still a remarkable effort, not least because, by that point, runs were practically irrelevant.

It didn’t exactly sum him up, because no single moment ever could encapsulate so multitudinous a cricketer, one capable of making his slowest first-class century in the first innings, from No.5, and the fastest Test fifty by an England opener in the second. The performance as a whole did contain plenty of what makes Stokes special, but you could say that of many a match the all-rounder has played in the last year or so. This wasn’t even the first time in 2020 – a year in which he leads the world in both Test runs and wickets – that he’d smashed 70-odd to give England just enough time in a bum-squeaker and then bowled himself into the ground to ensure they completed the job.

He only finally decided caution was the better part of valour one wicket from the finish, when he felt a twinge of tightness and handed Joe Root the ball to finish the over. With a series decider to come, a decision will have to be made over Stokes’ involvement. As much as he makes it seem possible, he can’t actually do everything all the time forever. That England would pick him purely as a batsman is not in doubt. The question is whether England can do that and hold off throwing him the ball when it’s doing nothing, or sticking him in the fielding position where you need screamers taken, and whether, even if Root can refrain, Stokes can stop himself from begging for it regardless.

Twice in this game he bowled 11-over spells consisting almost entirely of short balls, the nature of which necessitated the field which had Stokes haring down to long-off himself. You can perhaps question the tactic – by now Root’s default Plan B, and you wonder if a bowler of Stokes’ skill wouldn’t have claimed just as much success aiming at the top of off for 66 balls – but not Stokes’ skill or commitment to employ it. Both times he claimed wickets which broke the game open just as you were wondering if even Stokes might need a breather.

A stat from ESPNcricinfo showed no England bowler has broken 50-plus stands more frequently. So important is his batting, he is only called upon to bowl in the toughest of circumstances when England most need it. One wonders what that bowling average – still a handy 31.73 – might read were he to be in practice the attack leader he is in spirit.

Still, it’s his batting England need most at this point, and few batsmen ever have had his range – AB de Villiers is decreasingly farfetched as a comparison – with his performance here akin in a way to that Headingley performance – the blocks, the bloody-mindedness, and then the ballistics – just split across two innings and spread out over twice as many runs. There are still occasions when he can be criticised for giving into his talents too easily, not least in the first Test, and it’s that reversal that will have made his first-innings epic all the more satisfying.

But the trend is that he is, at last, putting together the body of work he has always been capable of. In the last 12 months, he has four Test centuries and a batting average of 59.38, including one of the greatest of all time. The stats will never tell the full story with Benjamin Stokes, but increasingly they are painting a compelling picture by themselves.

For a while he has been England’s best batsman, ahead of Joe Root, and while there is more debate over if he is the world’s best Test cricketer, it is becoming increasingly hard to challenge that too. Really, there is little new left to say, but every freak show of a performance makes you want to say it all again anyway, if only to convince yourself that, yes, Ben Stokes really did just do that, and yes, we really are seeing one of the great careers play itself out.

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