In the wake of England’s Test series victory in South Africa, Phil Walker spoke to Ben Stokes to learn about, amongst other things, that remarkable Cape Town knock.
In the hazy hours after the South Africa series had been won, Ben Stokes told All Out Cricket from his hotel room in Jozi that he didn’t really like talking about himself. “I find it quite an uncomfortable place to be in, to be honest.” Fair enough. It’s just not his style. And besides, there’s plenty of us falling over ourselves to do the job for him. “Yeah, it was strange,” he added, “because I was doing a few interviews and everyone was talking about it. But on personal stuff, I don’t really know what to say.”
The ‘it’ to which he refers occurred over two days at Cape Town, and will be recalled for decades to come. This is what happens when someone hits the quickest 250 in Test history. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said, sounding a bit wearied by the hoopla. No bit of this is false modesty, because there’s near-as-dammit nothing false about him. The boy really is too good to be true. Also up there, pretty near the surface, is a blunt acknowledgment that it’s about what you do, not what you say. And what Stokes is doing has the potential to propel English cricket back into the heart of the sporting conversation; a place, of course, where the thing most desperately needs to belong.
When Stokes took that catch at Trent Bridge last year, springboarding back on himself to cling one-handed to a flying edge headed halfway to the third-man boundary, triggering a viral outbreak of Broadface after one of cricket’s greatest-ever catches, Nasser Hussain blurted out on commentary that Ben Stokes had been threatening something like that all summer. And so it felt in Cape Town. We all knew how good he was. Now the world was about to catch up.
Stokes is not built like other cricketers. The limitations that apply to the others – as in all the others, barring perhaps AB and B-Mac in the field and, well, AB and B-Mac with the bat – don’t get in the way with Stokes. It’s not hyperbole to put his match-changing threat in such company, nor is it punditry-revisionism based on little more than a tasty run of form. This is where he belongs. England currently boasts the most charismatic cricketer in the world. It’s rare for a truly populist breakout star to emerge from our often-cloistered corridors, but English cricket’s got one now. The big question down the line is how well they’re going to handle it. In the meantime, let’s just savour what we’ve got.
Take away those 198 balls at Cape Town and Stokes could boast a very good series. Twelve wickets and some important runs, including five scalps and a match-turning 58 at The Wanderers. Add in Newlands, and it becomes the finest series by an England allrounder since Andrew Flintoff in 2005. For all these flurries of combinations thrown across the series, however, there’s only one place to start.
So did you watch it back? Sit down with a beer and a pizza and crack open the laptop?
Yeah, I’ve watched it. Obviously we get all the recordings, of the main bits of the whole game, so yeah, I’ve watched it all. Well, didn’t watch it all, just the bits I wanted to. Yeah, it was good to watch…
You could say that. Favourite shot?
I think the one when I hit Piedt over extra-cover, when I was nowhere near the ball, and just swung. [It went 20 rows back.]
What did the boys say in the aftermath?
We’ve got a really good team when it comes to stuff like this. Everyone says, ‘Really well done’ when you’ve done something well – like Broady’s six-fer at Joburg, we were all just like, ‘Broady, awesome’, but then it’s just like ‘Right, let’s sit down and have a beer’ and it’s done. Obviously we celebrate everyone’s success, but I don’t think we are a team that let people have too much praise. It sounds bad but you know what I’m saying. There’s no egos in this team whatsoever, which is a good thing to have.
How would you have bowled to yourself? Would you have tried to bounce yourself out?
Probably, but I would have taken it on anyway! That first day [Stokes got to the close 74 not out], it was lucky, because I was looking at the scoreboard and it said we still had six or seven overs to go in the day, but actually there was actually only six minutes left, and I only knew that because the umpire told me. That’s when I stopped trying to pull and hook everything, and if I hadn’t known that I’d have kept trying to take it on and would have probably skied one up in the air.
On the second morning, you hit 130 in a single session…
I just got going and couldn’t stop. There were quite a few balls to hit, to get my hands through. Once I got past my hundred I looked at the scoreboard and thought we were in a good position anyway, and decided to just chance my arm.
And when it was all going off, were you eyeing the 300 mark?
Yeah, a little bit, I was thinking that if I kept going I might be able to get 300, but when the message got run out to me [to go for the landmark] I was just trying to hit every ball for six anyway. And that was it! It didn’t really matter…
A few days later you were walking out at The Wanderers, starting again on nought. Were you extra nervous?
I’ve always got nerves going out to bat, but yeah, I did feel it at Joburg. I’d never expected to go out and play an innings like I did at Cape Town, and I probably never will again. I definitely think that will be the one time I play like that, when everything went my way.
What about other standout moments from the series? Where was it won and lost?
I think the biggest one was Rooty’s hundred at Joburg. He came in and was saying, ‘My feet are nowhere, I’m just not feeling great’. And then for a bloke to manage to get through that, to get a hundred in such a crucial moment of the game, I think that was one of the crucial bits of the whole series. So for him to stick it out, and just keep battling through, and then eventually find his form when he’s on 70 or 80, that was crucial. Even when I got out we were still 100 behind, but he managed to stick through the bad times, when he said he didn’t feel in great form.
When you were batting together during that partnership [the pair put on 111 in 16 overs], was he talking to you like that, through the knock, saying he didn’t feel great?
Not exactly, but it was a battle to get through it. Me and Rooty, we hardly talk about cricket when we’re together. If anything, we might say, ‘Yeah, the ball’s swinging a little bit’. And here we were involved in a few close run-out calls but we just laughed it off. Once we got going we just fed off each other.
And it all started at Durban, where South Africa turned up as comfortable favourites and you blew them away. What stands out from that match?
From that Test, it’s definitely when we got Amla in the first innings. He was a massive wicket early on. If he gets in he’s very hard to get out, and getting him cheaply in both innings was crucial. And even de Villiers, he got runs in both innings but we never let him push on to make a big score. Cutting down the big two was the biggest thing for us, both at Durban and in winning the whole series.
Was it your best winter away with the team, in terms of atmosphere as well as results?
Yeah, definitely, and the build-up to last summer’s Ashes was pretty similar. Everyone in South Africa was saying they’re No.1 in the world, and England abroad haven’t been that good recently, and just as against Australia we proved everyone wrong again.
Inside the team, did you get the sense this was on the cards, that they were there for the taking?
Definitely, because we had played some really good cricket over the last 12 months. We were full of confidence coming in, obviously we knew they were going to be tough to beat in their home conditions but South Africa is probably – South Africa and Australia – the two overseas conditions that would be most in our favour.
Can you sum up the changes that have taken place around the team over the last nine months?
On the pitch, we’ve played with the exact same mentality since the New Zealand series [that kicked off last summer]. We’ve always gone out and played positive cricket no matter what the situation. Everyone’s played the way they’ve wanted to play. It’s easy to say it’s gone well when it’s paying off, but, I mean, what’s the point in changing the way we’ve gone about our cricket, when we’ve been so successful for a long period of time?
And for you yourself, as a player who’s always played on the edge, being given that freedom allows you to express yourself?
I took a lot of confidence from the start of the summer, getting told that ‘We just want you to play how you want to play’, and that is a massive help, not only from the captain but from the coaching staff as well. So that was a lot of pressure taken off my shoulders, then obviously I had a good few knocks, and at the moment I’m in a good place with my cricket.
Have you surprised yourself with how well it’s gone?
Yeah, definitely. There’s still the consistency thing that I want to nail down, which is getting better and better, the more I play. So I’m just looking to keep it up and capitalise on the good form I’m in.
The machine had cranked into gear after Cape Town and amongst all the talk, Beef’s voice boomed the loudest, declaring that Stokes is “probably a better player than I was at 24”. Everyone hears it, including Stokes. “Argh,” he sighs, “he’s commentating and he’s just thinking of something to say. Yeah… I don’t take anything from comments like that. Obviously it’s nice to know but, yeah, I’ve had to try and ignore comments like that about Beefy and Flintoff for the last year now.”
Does it get on his nerves? “It does get on my nerves, yeah. I’m not trying to be them or emulate them whatsoever. It’s nice to get compared to them, they were obviously fantastic players for England, but I just try and ignore those comments and not listen to them.”
The guardedness makes sense. It’s a good pub debate but meaningless to the bloke in question. He’s carving his own story, while the past is for pundits and nostalgia-junkies. “Some people have actually said a name from the past and I’ve gone, ‘Who’s that?’ And they think I’m trying to be an idiot, or ‘mule’ them, as we say in the changing room. But in terms of my past cricket knowledge, it’s only really the past superstars back in the day who I know of.”
Still, as we’re here, we can’t resist. Does Ben Stokes know who the four great allrounders of the Eighties were?
“Erm, Beefy, Imran Khan… Imran Khan. Who else would it be? Erm… was there one from India?”
Yep, there was one from India, bang on. “Argh, I can’t remember his name.” And one from New Zealand as well… “Oh yeah! Hadlee!”
Nailed it. And the Indian fella’s Kapil Dev. “Kapil Dev! Yeah, that’s it.” So the most exciting all-round cricketer of the day can’t immediately recall the big four of yesteryear. But why should he? Stokes is the here and now. Ever since Trevor Bayliss walked into Andrew Strauss’ office at the ECB with a plan to free them all up, he has been right in the thick of it, a cricketer transformed, the zeitgeisty heartbeat of a liberated team.
“He’s going to be one of those players who can win a team a match, and at times he’s going to disappoint – as all of those types of players in history have shown,” says Bayliss, who, when pushed, will concede that this team can become “something special”. Special teams have players with appeal beyond the confines of cricket’s captive audience. As the battle for schoolyard-relevance intensifies, the game is crying out for a fresh injection of charisma. England has rarely had many dogs in that particular fight, but that was then. Things are different now.
Extraordinarily different. Welcome to the Ben Stokes era.