As the inspirational podcast, The Girls Bathroom, tells me regularly: “Love isn’t enough.”
Hosted by Sophia Tuxford and Cinzia Zullo, the relationship-based show aims to, “help you with your dilemmas, by trying to make sense of these boys wasting our time”.
Which brings us to the England men’s cricket team. A nonsense organisation made-up of 50 percent private school tuck box and 50 percent leather, they still manage to capture the imaginations of literally dozens of people back home through a combination of Jos Buttler’s smile, Sam Curran’s grin and Moeen Ali’s twinkle.
They also, at times, do it by being really good. Earlier this year they scored half a thousand against the Netherlands, won the World Cup in 2019, made it to the semi-finals of the T20 World Cup in 2021, an achievement that given the quality of the side, was in fact considered a disappointment.
And they have done a lot of it (admittedly absolutely not the 2019 World Cup) without Stokes. Through a variety of reasons – whether they be physical injuries or mental-health breaks – Stokes hasn’t been an integral part of this T20I side for years. Since the start of 2018, England have played 70 T20Is and Stokes has played in 18 of them. By contrast, Sam Billings, the world’s most popular and deeply loved 12th man, has played 24.
But as we arrived at this year’s World Cup Stokes was around. A star-shaped peg to be fit into whatever hole England could create for him. And create they did.
Jason Roy forgot how to bat, Jonny Bairstow forgot how to walk, Eoin Morgan didn’t want to play anymore and Reece Topley stood on an Aramco sponsored boundary-marker and was shot by the ICC.
The conclusion from all this, was that Stokes was to bat at four. A role he had never done for England and one which he hadn’t done for anyone since 2019. And batting at No.4 is hard. Arguably the hardest of all.
If you come in during the Powerplay it means you’ve lost two early wickets, whereas if you come in after the Powerplay you’re likely facing the opposition’s best spinner. Any later than that and you’re expected to tee off from ball one. It requires immense versatility.
‘Perfect,’ you may argue. ‘Why shouldn’t this role, the hardest of them all, be given to Mr Incredible? He can do everything and shows it time and time again.’
The problem is that in the five innings that have followed since he assumed the role, Stokes has failed to reach double figures on four of the occasions, and struck at more than a run a ball just once.
And his inclusion so far hasn’t been without casualty. Defeat to Ireland was largely down to England’s failure to stay above the DLS target before the rain arrived. Now Stokes, who scored six in eight balls, was far from the most guilty party – Dawid Malan and Harry Brook batted 58 balls between them for 53 runs – but Stokes was the man batting in the position that could have been occupied by either Liam Livingstone or Moeen, who were left stranded at the crease when the rain came down.
Stokes has batted at No.4 in his entire career on 32 occasions. Livingstone, on the other hand, has done it 21 times just this year alone, with an average of 29.68 and a strike-rate of 162. Meanwhile, Moeen has done it for club or country 22 times since the start of 2021, striking at 143 with an average of 26.32.
“People will say Stokes is capable of doing something magnificent,” said Mark Butcher on the Wisden Cricket Weekly podcast, “but then England have got lots of other batters in that line-up who are also capable of doing it who are all batting one position lower than they would do otherwise.”
After the game, Buttler admitted that with hindsight England could’ve shuffled the order to make better use of their power hitters earlier. Livingstone simply replied, “yeah”, to the question of whether he thought England’s top order should have been more proactive to stay ahead of the rate.
Stokes may be Mr Incredible, but we’re all currently the kid on the trike, waiting for something amazing to happen.
And the problem England have is they don’t have any more time to wait. The loss to Ireland means that they have to be perfect from here on in if they wish to return home as champions and you can’t afford to be waiting in a time of action.
There are three options that England could choose to pursue. Shuffle the pack and have Stokes lower in the order to allow for more firepower up top. Drop him for Phil Salt. And if Stokes’ overs are a consideration, David Willey becomes the alternative.
Stokes is unquestionably one of the best, if not the best cricketer in the world. The question England have to answer is, regardless of how much they love him, whether that also means he’s in their best T20I team.
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