How’s your hangover? Mercifully mine has finally dissipated. Sunday night was one hell of a party and I spent most of Monday wondering whether the damage to my liver would be permanent. Luckily, however, I survived. And I’m slowly beginning to digest what happened. So after my somewhat dazed and confused post 48 hours ago, this article will try to make sense of it all and assess where the series stands now.
Let’s start with the positives. Ben Stokes has almost single-handedly kept the series alive. Without his bowling on Saturday the Aussies would’ve piled up more than a 358 run lead. While the other bowlers somewhat wilted, and heads in the field started to drop, Stokes bowled a mammoth spell that kept England in the game. Foolish bloggers like yours truly had already given up. Stokes hadn’t.
Without Stokes the bowler, Stokes the batsman wouldn’t have been able to win the game. A lot of people have missed this point. And when it was finally his turn to bat, he played probably the best test innings I’ve seen by an Englishman since Graham Gooch carried his bat against the West Indies at Headlingley in 1991.
Stokes’s innings had everything: patience and stoicism at the start and then explosive shotmaking at the end. He even manipulated the strike well when batting with the tail. It wasn’t quite as good as Gooch’s masterpiece, which came on a difficult pitch against Ambrose, Walsh, Marshall and Patterson, but it was bloody close.
The obvious question, I suppose, is why Stokes can’t bat like this more regularly? His test average is still just 35. However, I think his career record is very acceptable for an all-rounder who also exerts himself physically and mentally in the field. He averages more than Botham and Flintoff, and his average is climbing towards Imran Khan levels.
It’s also important to remember that Stokes has to practice two disciplines. He can’t just devote himself to batting. But I’m sure if he did then he’d soon average over 40. His technique is sound, his method quite simple, plus he has ice in his veins. What’s more, statistics can be misleading. They don’t take into account the quality of the opposition or the match circumstances.
The cliche “it’s not how, it’s how many” has always seemed incomplete to me. A more appropriate expression would be “it’s not how, it’s how many, and when“. Stokes rises to the big occasion, and like Kevin Pietersen he raises his game against the very best opponents. This counts for one hell of a lot.
Although Stokes rarely makes average-boosting double centuries against modest opposition at home (in front of half-empty stadiums), he produces his best batting performances under extreme pressure when his team really needs him.
I’d rank his maiden century at Perth, his miracle at Headlingley, plus his performances in the World Cup (when he was frequently the only England batsman to keep his head) much higher than Alastair Cook’s 294 at Birmingham against India, his 263 in Abu Dhabi, his 243 against the Windies at Birmingham, or his 244 at the MCG. I’d also rate Stokes’s efforts above Gooch’s 333 at Lord’s in 1990 which was somewhat like taking candy from a baby. ‘How many’ isn’t always the most important consideration when adjudicating greatness.
What’s more, Stokes’s batting has been maturing for a while now and his career average will only improve. After his brilliance at Headingley I imagine England’s opponents might fear him even more than Root now. The captain makes a lot of pretty fifties but how many times has he converted these into big hundreds and won his team a game?
But after all the celebrations must come the reality check. Not necessarily for Stokes, but for the England team in general. This was a brilliant win that’s another shot in the arm for English cricket – I was inundated by messages from non-cricket loving friends who were drawn into the action – but unfortunately the same old problems remain. Cricket is dying out because performances like Stokes’s are invisible to most of the population. Meanwhile, the test batting line-up and the first class game in general are also at a very low ebb.
Take Root and Stokes out of the equation, and the rest of England’s top seven made an abysmal 141 runs for the loss of 12 wickets at Leeds. And fifty of those were scored by everyone’s favourite punchbag, Joe Denly, in the second innings. In many ways Stokes’s brilliance has simply papered over increasingly large cracks – crevices that Tony Greig could shove one of his Julius Marlows into. I hate to say it, but Stokes’s heroics have spared the ECB the humiliation of an abysmal series defeat in little over 3 weeks.
What’s more, let’s take ourselves back a week. Before the Headlingley test an England win was very much on the cards. It was almost expected. Steve Smith was missing due to his Archer induced concussion and everyone said this was our big chance to get back in the series.
And we very nearly blew it.
As Stuart Broad so articulately expressed after the game, England’s performance at Leeds was abject at times. They allowed Australia to get too many runs in helpful conditions, and the batting failed yet again. Stokes’s sensational performance can’t hide the fact that we’ve been bowled out for under 100 three times this year. If you’re relying on miracles to win games then you’re not going to get much further than a tortoise wading through a quagmire of molasses.
What’s more, although momentum is a funny thing in sport, and it might seem like England have the wind behind them now, Australia still have the slighter stronger team on paper. Plus they don’t actually need to win the series to retain the Ashes.
With Steve Smith bolstering their batting, and Marnus Labuschange likely to join him in the middle-order, the Aussies suddenly have a much stronger looking line-up. What’s more, they have rotated their bowlers skilfully and they’re likely to be fresher than ours come Old Trafford. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mitchell Starc plays to create some rough for Nathan Lyon.
England also have several selection dilemmas to chew over ahead of Manchester. The team is clearly in flux. Roy Burns has started to struggle against the short stuff, Jason Roy looks out of his depth, Joe Denly scored a brave 50 at Leeds but has generally struggled, and Jos Buttler’s form is a big worry. With Jimmy Anderson likely to return (if he proves his fitness) England might have to consider three or four changes to a ‘winning’ side – a curious situation indeed.
Personally I would make two changes: Dom Sibley for Roy and Anderson for Woakes. I would retain Denly because it’s unfair to drop him after his battling (and rather crucial) innings alongside Joe Root at Leeds.
Some have suggested swapping Roy and Denly around but this makes no sense to me. There’s no guarantee Roy would fare any better at second drop – he’d still need to know where his off-stump is wherever he bats – and it would be totally unfair to move Denly now that he’s finally found some form. He should be given the chance to consolidate rather than being moved back into the top 3 where he’s struggled in the past.
I would also retain Jos Buttler until the end of the series. Although I was against recalling Buttler last year because I feared he may get found out against the very best opponents – which is exactly what happened during his first stint in test cricket – he’s done a lot better than I expected over the last year.
Before the Ashes, Jos was averaging 40 since his recall (more than any other England player during the same time period) plus he’d played more innings of 100+ balls than any other player in the world; therefore it’s clear that Jos can knuckle down. I still have doubts – he’s clearly struggled against Pat Cummins & Co – but it’s only fair to see if he can come through this difficult spell. If he can’t then I’d drop him at the end of the summer and ask him to focus exclusively on T20s and ODIs again.
What changes would you all make to England’s XI? And should Jimmy Anderson be a shoo-in? I’ve heard some people suggest that his fitness is too much of a risk even if he comes through that Lancs second XI fixture.