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India v England 2024

Ben Stokes’ England increasingly reflect Ben Stokes the batter

Ben Stokes walks off the field after his first innings dismissal in Ranchi
Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 6 minute read

Ben Stokes has one first innings century since becoming captain. Yas Rana reflects on how Stokes’ side increasingly reflects his own status as a batter: a producer of great moments, rather than a consistently great team.

If there’s one thing you can say about Bazball, it’s that it doesn’t always inspire nuanced reactions. Some of the discourse on England’s defeat at Ranchi has been over the top. One venerable figure in the English game sincerely suggested that had England cut out their ‘braggadocio’, they’d have beaten Australia last summer and become the first touring team to win in India in 12 years, failing to consider that this is broadly the same group that won one one of their final 17 Tests under the previous regime.

Equally, some of the regime’s fiercest defenders would do well to note that a 2-2 draw at home to Australia and a 3-1 deficit in India is exactly what England achieved under Joe Root’s captaincy. There is, to some degree, a reversion to the mean due to the calibre of England’s recent opposition. England have been more competitive against those opponents under Ben Stokes but have occasionally failed to convert their dominance into wins.

England were written off before they landed in India. On paper, their attack didn’t stand a chance, especially after their senior spinner’s participation in the series was limited to the opening Test. Tom Hartley, Rehan Ahmed and Shoaib Bashir had one Test cap between them. But four Tests into the tour, it’s not been the raw spin attack that’s let them down.

Of course there have been moments where the young twirlers have not got it right, but for the most part they’ve more than held their own, with one former England captain describing Bashir and Hartley’s second day performance as the best he’d seen by a pair of English spinners in some time.

The real let-down for England, certainly in relation to pre-series expectations, is the output of their middle-order engine room.

Four Tests into the series, Root, Stokes and Jonny Bairstow have a combined two fifty-plus scores from 24 innings between them – a desperately disappointing return. They are up against an outstanding India attack but their collective failure in the face of them is a big part of why the series is over with one Test to play.

Root was castigated for his first innings dismissal at Rajkot, his fifth sub-30 score in a row, while Bairstow has endured speculation, from outside the camp at least, about his place in the XI in the run-up to what will almost certainly be his 100th Test appearance in Dharamshala next week.

The England captain’s own struggles with the bat have alluded the spotlight somewhat, perhaps because of his 70 in his first hit of the series. Since then, his seven subsequent knocks have brought him a further 127 runs and a series average south of 25. There have been shades of Michael Vaughan in 2005 about the manner of his dismissals, quizzically looking at the pitch after a ball has either kept low or moved more than he expected. R Ashwin, so often his nemesis in series gone by, has actually only dismissed Stokes once with Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah all accounting for the England captain twice each. Sometimes series like this can happen; you get a few balls with your name on it, you’re unlucky with a few others, you’re up against an all-timer of an attack and suddenly you’re averaging 25.

That said, Stokes’ second innings in Ranchi felt different. It was uncharacteristically tetchy; in 13 balls he really should have been out three times. His footwork was indeterminate, pressing but not committing forward, perhaps speaking of a wider missing rhythm in his batting.

Stokes’ career as a batter is at a curious juncture. As captain, his record is quietly ‘meh’. He averages 35.80 as skipper, basically identical to the 35.89 before he assumed the leadership. But it is simplistic to say his output has remained static over the last few years. As ever with Stokes, the story behind the numbers is complex.

From the start of 2016 to the end of the 2020 summer which Stokes left prematurely to be at his father’s bedside, he averaged 42 with the bat. In four out of five calendar years he scored multiple Test hundreds; the exception, 2018, was itself an infamously complex year for Stokes off the field.

Across 15 Tests between the start of the 2019 summer to the end of the Pakistan series the following year, he averaged 53. It was a stretch that included a second innings Lord’s Ashes hundred, his Headingley masterpiece, a century in South Africa and a dominant ton at home to West Indies in the first Covid series during which he reached a career-high third place in the ICC Test batting rankings.

Since he flew to New Zealand to be with his family we have seen glimpses of Stokes at his best. His 155 at Lord’s last summer, for example, was truly astonishing and was vintage Stokes, single-handedly injecting interest in a game that was otherwise dead. There was the Headingley counter-attack that basically kept England in the series but he has been short of, well, boring hundreds.

His two first innings hundreds in 2020 happened to be two of his slowest three-figure scores in Test cricket. As captain, he only has one first innings hundred; as many as Ben Foakes from nine more matches. Stokes’ first innings average of 32 as captain is by some distance the lowest of the top six to play through the ongoing India series. But his second innings average of 41 suggests that his ability to get his team out of a hole has not waned, even if his influence on the first half of matches with the bat has.

It would be wrong to simply say, ‘He needs to bat with more care.’ In the 2022 summer, Stokes essentially communicated his desired ethos to the team through the medium of his own batting, striking at over 100 in three of his five innings against New Zealand at the start of the series.

Since then, he has been more measured. In fact, since the start of 2023 – when his troublesome knee almost certainly hindered his ability to affect a match across all four innings – he strikes at 64 in the first innings. For comparison, Root strikes at 63, Pope at 77, Bairstow at 80, Crawley at 89 and Duckett at 93. Even then, Stokes’ 64 is inflated by a handful of blitzes alongside the tail. He has not infrequently struggled for rhythm at the start of his innings.

Stokes would not be the first player for whom captaincy has affected their batting for the worse. But that diagnosis does not chime with everything we know of the man. He thrives under pressure and additional responsibility. This is a man whose only two 20-plus T20 scores in the last 30 months have been unbeaten match-winning knocks in a World Cup, one of which was in the final.

So often teams reflect their captains, and right now it feels true with Stokes and this England team. They are both utterly watchable, capable of overturning any deficit and push the boundaries of what is possible in the Test game. They’re also less adept at controlling matches from the off and doing the boring things well. That unpredictably is surely part of the overall appeal. Kallis might average 19 runs per dismissal more than Stokes, but who has turned more heads? How you feel towards both Stokes and his team is in part a consequence of what you’re looking for in cricketers.

At his best, Ben Stokes is clearly a great cricketer. But in his current guise – he’s effectively been a specialist batter for a year now – he is one that produces great moments, without being consistently great. Is the team he leads so different?

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