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Ben Stokes, England’s great shape-shifter, has mastered the toughest job in the game

Ben Stokes
Phil Walker by Phil Walker
@Phil_Wisden 4 minute read

Ben Stokes will play his 100th Test match in Rajkot this week. As England’s extraordinary talisman reaches another milestone, Phil Walker reflects on his spellbinding leadership.

This article appears in issue 75 of Wisden Cricket Monthly, a West Indies special issue, also featuring the results of our annual Gear Test and an unmissable wallchart with every game of the new English season – available to order here.

Ravindra Jadeja, India’s form player, pushes a low full-toss back past the bowler and sets off. India are five down, still 112 runs away from the peculiar experience of a fourth home Test defeat in 11 years. The game is in a position that nobody (almost nobody) thought even marginally possible after England gave up 190 runs on first innings, yet here we are, again, trapped in the vice of another unignorable Test match.

Three months ago Ben Stokes was on crutches, after surgeons at London’s Cromwell Hospital were permitted to carve open his wreck of a left knee. He doesn’t bowl, as it stands. Nor does he field close to the bat. Instead he walks and points a lot, moving people into strange places which only make sense after further study, by which time he’s moved on to something else. Unusually for one of the game’s more extreme talents, for whom the game comes easily, Stokes is a watcher: sleuthing, looking for clues, tells, giveaways. This is how he learns, he once told me. He’ll study Anderson’s wrist position in the nets for days if he has to. He funnels it all into the job, this tattooed soothsayer at mid-on.

So it’s a tight one but Jadeja is quick, the team sprinter, yet to be run out in 68 Tests. He thinks there’s a run on because there is a run on.

Convention, whatever that used to look like, dictates that a right-arm fielder looking to pull off a throw should stay left-side of the ball, leading with their left shoulder to swoop and then flick or underarm it to the target. Nobody has ever seriously suggested that it might be better to run around it, gathering the ball with ‘reversed hands’ from outside the line of one’s left foot, thus leaving no option but to fling the ball out from the back of their hand in the same movement as hurling themselves to the floor.

The point is that it shouldn’t be possible. But then much of what he’s done, up until this point, across 99 Test matches and two world titles, kicks around outside the tramlines of reason, where the outlandish turns mundane.

From where it emanates is deep and unfathomable and can’t be learned. Perhaps, at its core, it has something to do with fathers and sons, and that which flows from embedding professional sport in the family unit as an everyday state of being. Take his first Test hundred. The WACA, Mitch Johnson. Forty degrees, chasing 500+ on a death-trap, its cracks opening up like the end of the world. He made 120 that day and was a little bemused, afterwards, by the result; he’d assumed they would win. He was 22. I was there for that one. This wasn’t normal behaviour.

Jadeja, then. He’s in the frame, but not by much. There’s a split moment when Stokes actually walks away from the scene, almost as stunned as the rest of us. You can see him mouthing “Is it out?” as he goes. He retains the capacity to astound.

He is the cricketer of our time. The first issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly’s second life, in November 2017, kicked off with a piece called The Curious Case of Benjamin Stokes, written in the shadow of that diabolical night in Bristol, when the consequences of him almost blowing the lot meant that Joe Root would take on Australia that winter without him, with a further seven months passing before Stokes rediscovered some version of himself on the steps of Bristol Crown Court, legally free if no more than that.

Since that point, that hinge in the story, the case has become curiouser and curiouser. Anyone could see that he was a one-off cricketer. What we didn’t yet know about, but which would come to be revealed, were the layers of emotional intelligence available to wrap around the hands and eyes and heart.

Charisma, with its origins in Christian theology as an endowment of God-given power, capable of inspiring great devotion in those around you, only carries you so far. What’s more, as with greatness, it can be isolating. Stokes’ greatest trick has been to channel himself outwards, bundling his life into a kitbag and letting it spool out on the dressing-room floor. Of course his players revere him for the things he’s done. Ollie Pope was right when he said he’d literally changed the game. His genius as a leader is to be at once otherworldly and rooted in the soil.

He has never given a toss about milestones and numbers – and that’s not a line, he’s always been consistent on that. Still, we can: he’s three wickets away – and bowling at 70 per cent in the nets, by the way – from becoming the third man ever to make 6,000 Test runs and take 200 wickets. The others? Sobers and Kallis.

John Arlott once said to Mike Brearley when he was England captain, “You know Mike, you’re the only one who realises it doesn’t matter”. Brearley, who could fret about his game as much as the next man, may have agreed more on a philosophical level than a practical one. Brearley’s win percentage as England captain stands at 58 per cent, the second-highest of any man to have done the job more than 20 times; you’ve guessed it, only Stokes has a better ratio. And he’s not done. The great shape shifter has a way to go yet, all while knowing, deep down and liberatingly so, that it matters precisely because it doesn’t.

This article appears in issue 75 of Wisden Cricket Monthly, a West Indies special issue, also featuring the results of our annual Gear Test and an unmissable wallchart with every game of the new English season.

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