Ben Stokes we salute you. But not in the same way that Marlon Samuels used to do. It wasn’t long ago that England’s leading all-rounder was talented but highly volatile. He was cricketing marmite. He made headlines on the field but also attracted attention for all the wrong reasons.
And then he grew up.
The Ben Stokes who not only won the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year award but also almost singlehandedly won his teammates the Team Of The Year and the Moment Of The Year awards too, is now a genuine icon who fully deserves the recognition he received on Sunday evening. I’m as pleased as punch that the fisticuffs in Bristol did not come to define this transcendent cricketing talent.
England would not have won The World Cup without Ben Stokes. That’s a fact. We wouldn’t have even made it to knock out stages without his composed knocks against Sri Lanka, Australia, and India. When everyone else was losing their heads and buckling like a squirming politician under the intense interrogation of Andew Neil, Stokes stood up and held everything together heroically.
And then when we needed him again the final, when the much heralded specialist batsmen had tried and failed yet again to come to terms with a less than ideal pitch, Stokes came to the rescue once again. He never gave up. He just hung in there. And then seized his big moment when the opportunity arose. It was comic book, Roy of The Rovers meets cricket, type heroism.
2019 was a fantastic year for English cricket in terms of exposure, and it would’ve unfolded very differently had it not been for Ben Stokes. He’s the most exciting (or perhaps I should say watchable) all-round cricketer of his generation. I know this sounds like a cliche – the kind of thing you’ll read a thousand times elsewhere – but he was quite simply incredible this year. I tip my hat to the bloke.
As someone who’s a bit of a sporting romantic – I love a good narrative me – I also relish how Stokes’s 2019 can be portrayed as the ultimate redemption story. Some thought he’d spend most of the year in prison. Instead he was acquitted, showed admirable maturity, became a real leader and role model within the England dressing room, and focused on what he does best: winning cricket matches.
It’s impossible to underestimate the pressure Ben was under at the start of the year. All cricketers are under the microscope to a significant extent, of course, but everyone seemed to be waiting for Stokes’s next failure or his next highly public breach of etiquette. I must admit that I was worried at times. How can a player who plays with such passion and intensity stay on the right side of the behavioural line in an environment where sledging and on-field insults fly around liberally?
But the extra pressure only seemed to focus Stokes’s mind. Most bad boys, take David Warner for example, always promise to be better men. They promise that they’ll change (or have changed) but they infrequently do. Animals really rather rarely change their spots. But Stokes has. He still shows the same intensity but since that infamous night in Bristol there’s never been anything remotely untoward. A situation that would’ve broken most men seems to have made the man in this instance.
Stokes has also matured as a cricketer as well as a personality. His remarkable innings at Headingley in The Ashes, which saved England from losing a series at home to Australia for the first time since 2001, was the best Test innings of the year and possibly the best of the decade. Everyone will remember the lusty hitting that took England to their target at the death – it was quintessential Stokes – but they shouldn’t forget that his strike rate hovered around the 20 mark during his first two hours at the crease.
This year Stokes the batsman proved that he’s the complete player. He can defend, he can attack, he can play the situation, and he probably has the best technique in the team. His method is uncomplicated – a refreshing change from most players in the side – and he plays straight.
Is Stokes world class as a batsman? I think he probably is these days. He averaged 45 in 2016, 44 in 2017, and 49 this year. His overall statistics aren’t the best but they’re improving. What’s more, he remains a man for the big occasion and tends to score runs when his team desperately needs them. Whilst there’s truth in the old adage “it’s not how but how many”, a better analysis would be “it’s not how but how many and when“.
Much as I hate waxing lyrical for prolonged periods – you might have sensed a certain world-weariness underneath my more light hearted articles satirising the general election last week – I do need to say one more thing about the UK’s newly crowned SPOTY before I sign off. Have you noticed how, to coin a football cliche, Stokes the bowler also never gives anything less than one hundred and ten percent?
Sometimes when I watch Ben steam in, particularly when the opposition have a lead approaching 500 with plenty of wickets in hand, I plead with him to ease up and let someone more expendable grind themselves into the dirt (especially considering his injury history). But it never happens. Asking Ben Stokes not to give everything is futile.
It doesn’t matter how flat the pitch or how lost the cause, England’s best all-rounder keeps running in hard. It’s like he’s desperately searching for that one moment that might shift momentum or give the team a lift. There’s little concern for any niggles he’s carrying or his longterm knee condition.
Some people compare Stokes to Jacques Kallis but I can’t think of a worse comparison. Whereas Kallis used to hate bowling and always seemed to do so reluctantly, you can’t seem to get the ball out of our Ben’s hands. He bowls with the nous of Ron Howard and the mad zeal of Groundskeeper Willie.
Stokes might not be as famous as these two fellow gingers, but I know who I appreciate the most.