In sport, there seems to be an obsession with finding the equivalent of a recently-retired, or in some cases, slightly older player. In Argentina, for example, every vaguely promising playmaker will inevitably be named ‘The New Maradona’ – there is even a Wikipedia article on the phenomenon, detailing such promising talents as Ariel Ortega, Javier Saviola and…er…Franco di Santo. Staggeringly fast and ludicrously strong New Zealand wingers (is there any other kind) have been dubbed ‘The New Jonah Lomu’. At Loftus Road, we’re hoping that promising winger Mide Shodipo turns out to be the new Andy Impey, which I assure you is a good thing.
For years English cricket was desperate to unearth the new Ian Botham. As England lurched from one humiliation to another during the late 80s and, well, most of the 90s, there was this obsession to find a player who could provide both Test-class batting and bowling, and an effervescent energy to lift the side out of the doldrums. Luminaries such as David Capel, Mark Ealham, Ronnie Irani and Chris Lewis were tried and then discarded once it became clear they weren’t up to standard.
Excitingly, as the noughties progressed, it became clear that England did have their longed-for Beefy Mk II. Andrew Flintoff had made his debut against South Africa in 1998, contributing little, and bagging a pair in his second Test. In and out of the side over the next four years, he developed the ability to bat (slightly) within himself, while mastering the art of reverse swing, and bulking out so that he could bowl consistently at 90+mph. By the mid-2000s, he was a genuine all-rounder, an automatic pick for either his bowling or his batting. However, his body couldn’t cope with the stress of all that cricket (and drinking), and in 2009 he quit international cricket, not before bowing out with a truly awe-inspiring performance to bowl England to victory against Australia at Lord’s.
So, with his retirement, English cricket was back to square one in its search for an all-rounder, with the slight difference being that this time any hopeful would be called ‘The New Andrew Flintoff.’
This is where Ben Stokes comes in. Gradually introduced into the England set-up, he was sent home early from an England Lions tour in 2013 for indiscipline, but played in the ODI side later that year, and was included in the England touring squad for the 2013-14 Ashes. No-one outside Australia really wants to dwell on that particular series, suffice to say that Stokes hit an outstanding century at Perth, and was the only England player to return from that series without his reputation in tatters. He proceeded to follow such a promising debut series up with a truly horrendous 2014 season, where he couldn’t seem to buy a run, whatever the format, and was promptly dropped.
After his performance to help England win the opening Test against Bangladesh, it is inconceivable to imagine Stokes being voluntarily left out of the England XI. He seems to set the tone for team, to encourage others, whether by deeds or words, and to take responsibility in the tough moments. Much like Flintoff did. Much like Botham did.
Look at Flintoff’s Test averages (31.77 with the bat, 32.78 with the ball) and you might wonder what all the fuss is about. They don’t take into account, though, the number of match-altering and match-winning contributions he made. It is the same with Stokes. Currently he averages 34.04 with the bat and 34.86 with the ball, reasonable, but not outstanding all-round figures. But think of the times he has made decisive contribution in Test Cricket. There was his performance at Lord’s against New Zealand last year, where he scored 92 and 101, before removing the two danger batsmen, Kane Williamson and Brendon McCullum with successive deliveries. There was the astonishing catch he took to dismiss Adam Voges at Trent Bridge, before claiming 6-36 in the second innings. There was the frankly ludicrous 258 against South Africa at the start of the year, where Morne Morkel was made to look like a club trundler. To these we can add his match-winning performance to help England to victory in Chittagong.
In stifling heat, and on an unresponsive pitch, Stokes tore in at the start of day 3, helping reduce Bangladesh to 248 all out from the relative comfort of 221-4, an ultimately crucial morning. Then when England batted for a second time, he was called on to help rebuild the innings (as he has had to do so often in the past couple of years) from 62-5. Stokes’ natural inclination is to attack. The above-mentioned 101 at Lord’s featured some savage pulling, while his 258 was so brutal it can only be shown post-watershed. Here, he looked like a ginger Graham Thorpe, nudging the ball into the gaps, playing the spinners as late as possible, but still attacking when the delivery deserved it. The 86 runs he scored were worth far more in this relatively low-scoring match.
England currently have many problems surrounding their Test match team. There are two batting positions up for grabs, none of the spinners bowled with anything like enough consistency, and there are questions to be asked about the balance of the side (is Chris Woakes entirely necessary? Can Gary Ballance be retained purely as a specialist short leg?), but in Stokes they are lucky to have one of the most valuable players in world cricket. He may not end his career with the most flattering of averages, but, like Flintoff, you can be sure he will have helped England to many more victories.