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Ben Stokes shows why England rivals are in awe ahead of World Cup title defence

Supreme Stokes: Ben delivered another masterclass against New Zealand at the Oval on Wednesday  (AP)
Supreme Stokes: Ben delivered another masterclass against New Zealand at the Oval on Wednesday (AP)

Another masterclass, another afternoon of utter domination, another fielding side on strings throughout an historic innings of 182, the highest ODI score ever by an Englishman.

Another tale to burnish the legend of Ben Stokes, a cricketer first and foremost, but more than that, a demigod, with a mythic quality these days beyond the stage of denial, even to England’s greatest rivals.

Australia’s head coach Andrew McDonald recognised it this summer, having sat through another match-altering knock during Headingley’s Ashes Test, when he admitted that “as long as Ben is around, you’re never in full control”.

New Zealand’s equivalent, Gary Stead, took solace after a 181-run mauling here in the theory that “I’d rather he score them now than on October 5”, when the two sides meet again for the World Cup opener, as if his side were some ancient clan living in the foothills of a great volcano, now due a period of respite having ridden out one eruption.

Even Virat Kohli, perhaps the one player in global cricket of similar aura, confessed Stokes as his favourite cricketer last week. Game recognise game and all that, but three weeks out from a World Cup on home soil for which England are, on paper, India’s closest challengers, the easy out would have been to rev up one of his own.

One recalls Jofra Archer being asked on the eve of the 2019 tournament who had been the toughest batter to bowl to during the recent IPL. He replied: “Jos Buttler, in nets.”

If anything, though, Stokes now looks more human on a cricket field than almost ever before, grimacing and grafting his way through games on one leg and restricted, by his inability to bowl, to just the one opportunity to mould each match to his will.

Having grabbed it and then some here on Wednesday, heaving nine sixes on his way to surpassing Jason Roy’s record knock of 180 against Australia from five years ago, Stokes spoke of the clarity his new role as a specialist batter has given to his ODI return.

“It’s the first time I’ve been clear in my mind that it’s the one thing I can focus on,” he said. “Over the last 18 months, every day has been, ‘Will I bowl? Will I not bowl?’ I know I can just focus on [batting], that that’s my thing for the team now.”

It is easy to forget now, given some of his red-ball feats, that for large periods of Stokes’s career, the 50-over format has been his strongest suit. He did not walk away from it out of preference, but simply because after taking on the Test captaincy something had to give, and with a T20 World Cup on the horizon, this was it.

It is easy to forget now, given some of his red-ball feats, that for large periods of Stokes’s career, the 50-over format has been his strongest suit

The plan, as has become clear, was always to return, and just three games into the comeback, his career ODI average is back above 40. Since the start of 2016, it sits at 51. It might be the occasional miracles that stick in the memory, but in 50-over cricket, Stokes is a consistently prolific run-maker.

A move up to No4, the slot held by Eoin Morgan during the previous cycle, may yet unlock more, offering the 32-year-old the luxury of time — however much or little he might need — to build his innings. Here, arriving at the crease with England 13 for two in the third over, Stokes took 19 balls to the end of the powerplay to reach 13, then scored 169 from his next 105.

“There were a couple of times I had to check myself,” he said. “I looked up at the scoreboard and there were still 23 or 24 overs left.”

When Stokes came out of retirement, the talk was all of big-game nous and the suspicion that England might have to wait until one of those, at the World Cup, to see the true value of his return. As it turns out, it has been made plain rather sooner.