I’m going to start by making an uncontroversial assertion. Ben Stokes is England’s best known cricketer of his generation. In fact, you’ve probably heard of Ben Stokes even if you don’t like cricket. That’s partly because of Bristol, of course, but it’s also because the 2019 Wisden Cricketer Of The Year makes sensational cricketing headlines too.
Stokes was the star of England’s World Cup final victory (shown on terrestrial TV), the star of England’s remarkable Ashes win at Headingley last summer, and he’s the reigning BBC Sports Personality Of The Year too.
And he deserves all the plaudits he gets. Stokes is no overrated show pony like some of our footballers are.
In this day and age, where cricket has been hidden behind a paywall for nearly 15 years, it’s extremely rare for cricketers to gain broader public recognition. I’d wager relatively few people outside the cricketing bubble have heard of Alastair Cook for example.
The sad truth is that cricket just isn’t on the public radar like it used to be. In fact, if you asked Brenda from Bristol to name three cricketers, she’d probably say Ian Botham, Freddie Flintoff (“from Top Gear”), and David Gower (“the bloke from They Think It’s All Over”).
So how has Stokes transcended the normal drawbacks cricketers face? How come Stokes is, you know, ‘news’? It’s because he’s very, very good. And like Botham and Flintoff he’s a headline writer’s dream. Although, having said that, he was unable to inspire a decent headline for this particular article. Like the aforementioned Sir Alastair, I played it with a straight bat today.
Normally when I write articles like this I end up concluding that such and such a cricketer is overrated (particularly very modern players). I’ll argue they aren’t a patch on players from years gone by. After all, it’s natural to get a tad wistful when remembering one’s heroes from yesteryear.
However, in Stokes’s case I can’t. He’s too box office. Yes his statistics could be a little better but cricket isn’t just about averages. It’s about when you score your runs and take your wickets. It’s about performing when the stage is biggest and the lights are brightest. And Stokes does this regularly.
England’s vice captain is a match winner. And he’s a match winner in all departments – batting, bowling, and fielding. This makes him a true all rounder in every sense of the word – a player capable of turning a game in multiple ways.
The fact he’s also a somewhat flawed personality, with a fiery temperament, also makes him incredibly interesting. He captivates unlike any England cricketer since Botham.
That’s why today I’m going compare Stokes with Botham himself, plus the aforementioned Flintoff. Which one was best? And if we can’t decide for sure then at least the journey should be interesting.
Although I probably missed Botham’s peak (I started watching cricket in the mid-80s) I’ve seen highlights of his signature performances many times. I also followed his later career very closely. I was a junior member at Worcs when Beefy signed for us, so I saw him live on many occasions; therefore I’m in a reasonable position to judge.
At his best (and slimmest!), Beefy was probably the best bowler of the three. He could be surprisingly slippery, swung the ball prodigiously, and managed to take wickets through sheer force of personality. The fact he picked up so many wickets as a medium pacer towards the end of his career also speaks volumes. He was a crafty so and so. People don’t give him enough credit for that in my opinion.
Beefy’s batting, however, wasn’t quite as strong. Yes he could be brilliant on his day but he wasn’t a technician and wasn’t particularly consistent either. He only averaged over 40 in a calendar year once (in 1982) despite playing for England for fourteen years.
Sir Ian finished up with a career Test average of 33.5 which isn’t bad for an all-rounder but isn’t particularly inspired either – especially as his numbers were inflated by a remarkable record against India. What’s more, despite his legendary Ashes heroics, he actually ended up averaging under 30 against the Aussies. I bet you didn’t know that. I didn’t until recently.
Botham also struggled mightily against the West Indies, averaging just 21 with the bat in twenty Tests against them. There’s no shame in struggling against one of the best attacks of all time, of course, but one could also argue that true greats manage to raise their game against the very best. In Botham’s case, this simply didn’t happen – at least not with the willow.
When it comes to Flintoff, I’ve ultimately come to see him as a lesser version of his Beefiness. Freddie was a terrific bowler (when fully fit) and he troubled some of the best batsmen of all time – just ask Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting. It wasn’t just the 2005 Aussies either. Fred also had a good record in South Africa and India.
The caveat is obviously that Flintoff never picked up the sheer volume of wickets he deserved. My eyes always told me that he was one of the finest fast bowlers I’ve seen in England colours. But his Test average of 33 tells a different story. In fact, he only averaged under 30 against one major Test nation – the ‘mediocre’ West Indies.
I can’t put my finger on why Freddie struggled to take wickets (despite making so many high class batsmen struggle). Did you know that he only took three 5-fers in his 79 Tests and didn’t take ten wickets in a match once? Even his first class bowling career wasn’t anything to get excited about.
All I can say is that Flintoff seemed to go past the outside edge without inducing a nick more than any other bowler I can remember. Normally this happens to bowlers who don’t pitch the ball up enough but I can’t recall Freddie being a particular culprit in this regard. It’s a mystery. I don’t know what to say.
When it came to batting then Flintoff was very much a Botham clone. He was a fine player when ‘grooved’ (the term Freddie frequently used himself) but there was little consistency and more than the occasional agricultural heave. He was almost looked like a club batsman.
Despite playing some extremely fine innings (who can forget Trent Bridge and Edgbaston in 2005) Fred probably underachieved overall. All the talent was there but something was missing. Rather than maturing as a batsman as he gained more experience his record actually fell away over the years. In fact, he averaged well under 30 in his last four years of Test cricket. Strange.
Although an overall Test average of 32 is reasonable for an all-rounder, I must confess that I rarely had much faith in Freddie. I always watched him in hope rather than expectation. Why? Because I’m not sure he had the mind (or approach) of a top flight batsman. Consequently, I always felt more comfortable with him at No.7 rather than No.6. It’s a small but significant distinction.
Where Stokes differs from the other two is that he’s a better batsman than bowler. He’s a technician with the game to bat anywhere from 3-6. There are no obvious weaknesses in his technique. If I was a bowler – i.e. twenty years younger, fitter, and slightly less lazy – then I wouldn’t know where to bowl at him. I’d probably just bowl at off stump and hope for the best.
Stokes the batsman is solid in defence, fantastic on the drive, sound off his legs, and pugnacious off the back foot. He cuts brilliantly, pulls with brutality, and plays all around the wicket. His only fault – and I’m really nitpicking here – is that he occasionally gets himself out by playing too aggressively (or loosely). However, it’s hard to pin this criticism on a player who’s also very capable of knuckling down, eating up deliveries, and playing the match situation.
Unlike Botham and Flintoff, Stokes also raises his game against the best opponents. I still think his maiden Test century at Perth was one of the best innings I’ve seen. It came against what was a ferocious attack that dominated every other player in that series. You could just tell that the young Stokes was something special.
When analysing Stokes’s record you’ll see that he averages a healthy 38 against the Aussies, 43 against Southee and Boult’s New Zealand, and 48 against the Saffers. He could do with improving his record against India and Sri Lanka a smidge but I’m sure this will come.
What’s more, I’m absolutely confident that Stokes the cricketer is still trending upwards. He’s maturing nicely. Ben has averaged 50+ over his last 11 Tests (talking his career average to a respectable 37) and I have no doubts that he’ll reach the 40 benchmark by the end of his career – especially if he bowls less and less.
And that’s the crucial distinction here. Whereas Beefy and Freddie weren’t consistently worth their place in the side as batsmen alone, I’d happily pick Stokes as a frontline batter even if he couldn’t bowl. His bowling is almost a bonus. But it’s more than that, of course …
Stokes the bowler is infrequently called upon to deliver match winning spells these days – that’s the luxury of a five-man attack – but when he’s needed he usually delivers. He can bowl quickly; he can keep it tight; he can generate some reverse swing; he can pitch it up and invite the drive; plus he can pin the batsman back in his crease by hitting the pitch hard. Overall, there’s not a lot he can’t do with the ball. He’s also a bit of a golden arm like Beefy. If only Flintoff had enjoyed half their luck.
Although injuries are obviously a bit of a problem for Stokes, I still think he’s worth his place in the side as a bowler alone. Some might question whether he’s one of the four best seamers in the country, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to argue that he is. He just doesn’t have to show it all that often. And England are obviously keen to minimise his workload.
For me this is one area where England’s latest greatest all-rounder might possibly have the edge over Sir Ian and Freddie. He’s genuinely worth his place in the side for both batting and bowling. Yes there were times when Botham and Flintoff were legitimate No.6 batsmen but when were they ever considered more than that i.e. did anyone ever suggest they should bat higher than 6 with regularity?
Stokes currently bats at 5 and many shrewd judges, including Geoff Boycott, have argued that he has the best technique in the side. High praise indeed. Beefy was occasionally shoved up the order but was never a long term higher up.
Although I’m not ready to declare Stokes as better than Botham – I’d have people of a certain generation after me for starters – I do think it’s a legitimate question to ask. After all, Stokes’s batting average of 37 and bowling average of 33 compares pretty favourably with Botham’s 34 and 28.
It’s worth pointing out that Stokes has rarely had the opportunity to bowl with the new ball. He’s usually tossed a dog eaten cherry that’s fifty overs old and asked to break a partnership with well set batsmen at the crease. If there’s much movement in the air or off the pitch then Anderson and Broad usually clear up and Stokes doesn’t get a look in.
When it comes to Flintoff, however, I do think I’m ready to declare Stokes the better. This is nothing personal against Flintoff, of course, it’s simply a matter of production. Stokes’s averages of 37 and 33 clearly represent a better return than Flintoff’s averages of 32 with the bat and 33 with the ball. Indeed, if one accepts that the mark of a top class all-rounder is one who averages more with the bat than they do with the ball, then Freddie sadly doesn’t qualify.
So we come back to the original question in this ever expanding article. How good is Ben Stokes? Pretty bloody good I’d say. He’s the only cricketer discussed above with an acceptable record in both departments. His weaker suit (bowling) would be just about good enough to keep him in the side, whereas any specialist batsman averaging Botham’s 33 or Flintoff’s 32 wouldn’t last for too long (unless their name was Jos Buttler, wink, wink).
Can Stokes ultimately surpass Sir Ian as England’s greatest ever all-rounder? It’s possible. Botham’s supporters will argue that their man possibly played too long and his career averages don’t reflect what a phenomenon he was in his pomp, but we don’t yet know what Stokes might become.
The end of the Ben Stokes story has yet to be written. It’s possible (albeit unlikely) that his form could fall away. He might repeat his Headingley heroics several times over. Or he might even suffer the a career ending injury like Flintoff. We just don’t know.
What’s more – and again this takes us full circle – who knows what future controversies are written in fiery Ben’s stars. We keep hearing that he’s matured (and I’m sure he has in many ways) but would it really surprise you if he got into an altercation in England’s next Test, ended up in a fight, got sacked on the spot, and subsequently joined the priesthood as a means of atonement?
I wouldn’t be shocked at all. Well, maybe the the bit about the clergy. Ben in the doghouse? Yes. Ben in a dog collar? Not gonna happen.