Ben Stokes: He's all smiles but is this the new Flintoff?
Durham's fiery redhead is on the brink of England recognition – and to think cricket almost lost him to rugby league. He talks to Jon Culley
Sunday 24 April 2011
The temptation to hail him as the new Freddie Flintoff – maybe even the new Ian Botham – has already proved too much for some to resist. His employers do not care for such labels, which they see as inviting unwelcome pressure. Yet if you will insist on taking three wickets in one over, knocking off a 135-ball hundred and then hitting five consecutive balls for six, all in the same day, it is difficult to avoid being noticed.
Ben Stokes did all this during an extraordinary few hours for Durham against Hampshire at the Rose Bowl a couple of weeks ago. It did not entirely surprise his county, who had a shrewd idea that they had unearthed a formidable talent when they invited him to nets six years ago. In the event, the response elsewhere was relatively muted as the business end of the football season kept headline writers busy. At this time of year, county cricket can slip under the radar.
Sooner or later, though – and probably sooner – Stokes will pull on an England shirt, and it will not take much to spark a hyperbolic frenzy. A redhead who bowls at a decent pace and hits the ball with considerable power, he looks his age away from the field, at 19 on the boyish side of manhood. He will need to grow up fast, but then he is learningto do that already.
"It's been a bit meteoric," he says, recounting his progress since Durham put a contract in front of him not much more than a year ago. "I'd had a bitof a random introduction to senior cricket the season before last, playing in a couple of one-day games, but then last year I went on the pre-season trip to Dubai and had a full season in the first team. From being in the academy it wasa massive step up."
Perhaps his background will help him cope. His father, Ged, is a former New Zealand rugby league international who brought the family to England in 2003 when he was offered the coach's job at Workington. Ben, born in Christchurch – although with no trace of a Kiwi accent, and ambitions only to play for England – was 12, and while he had played a little cricket, he was more interested in following his dad into rugby. While some of his mates might have imagined themselves being Flintoff, such fantasies never crossed his mind.
"I'd played rugby more in New Zealand and when I came here it was my number one sport, what I wanted to do. I joined up with Broughton Red Rose, a local rugby league club near where we lived. I did not start to think about cricket seriously until I was 14 and I can't say I had a hero I wanted to be like. There are players I admire but no one I wanted to emulate."
Yet even without "thinking seriously", he was good enough to represent Cumbria, with whom Durham have strong links, and it was not long after Stokes had been trekking across the country for trials that it became clear he might be more likely to forge a career with a small cork ball than an oval one.
"Ben is a match-winning cricketer, someone with the ability to take any opposition apart," the Durham head coach, Geoff Cook, says. "He has strength, reasonable technique and he is competitive – and if you put those things together, it is a good combination."
Cook, who was born in Middlesbrough, played much of his own career at Northamptonshire but he returned to the North-east as Durham's captain when they were admitted to the first-class game in 1991. Cook stayed on to run the county's academy, which has yielded a stream of home-grown players.
"We like to identify players with ability at around 13 or 14 and bring them to the academy when they reach 16," Cook says. That was how Stokes came to their attention. "He is an amazingly talented player, a complete natural ball-player really."
Stokes's ability to make things happen was clear from the outset, when his third ball in his first one-day match bowled Mark Ramprakash, and he had made two hundreds inside his first seven weeks in first-class cricket. It looked like a nerveless introduction, although he says that was far from the case.
"I was pretty nervous on my debut," Stokes says. "As soon as I bowled my first ball the nerves went, but the standard of cricket was a lot higher than anything I'd encountered before and the first few games were a big shock. Before I got my first hundred against Nottinghamshire I had not scored many runs and I was starting to wonder what the other lads might be thinking about me.
"But it is a good dressing room to come into. There are so many players with international experience, like Steve Harmison and Dale Benkenstein. They make it easy for you to settle and they encourage you to play the way you want to. Getting that century was my proudest moment so far and I hope I'll never forget it."
And, fresh-faced though he may be, Stokes is not afraid to speak up for himself on the field, which is only likely to encourage comparisons with Flintoff and Botham.
Stokes is a little bashful on the subject, suggesting that "hopefully this year I'm more mature", but admits that verbal spats have their merits. "I wouldn't say it is necessary to my game but I think it helps me concentrate more if I do get involved in little psychological battles with other players," he says. "If somebody has a go at me, I'll have a go at them back. I think it helps to give me the drive to do well."
A place on tour to the West Indies with the England Lions took himcloser to a senior call-up. The Lions coach, Mick Newell, said he "had not seen anyone hit the ball as brutally for a long time", although an ankle injury sustained there has flared up again, limiting his bowling since his career-best 6 for 68 against Hampshire.
Once Stokes is fully fit, though, Cook believes his potential is almost limitless. "His one-day game needs to improve but that will come, and he is one year wiser," Cook says. "It is an exciting time now and he is on the cusp of international recognition. I think that whatever he achieves in the game is down to him."
Timeline: Another Big Ben who loves to strike six after six
4 June 1991 Born in Christchurch, New Zealand
15 May 2009 Durham senior debut in 50-over match versus Surrey
29 March 2010 First-class debut against MCC in Abu Dhabi
13 May 2010 Hits maiden first-class century versus Nottinghamshire
19 May 2010 Career-best 161 not out versus Kent
28 January 2011 England Lions debut
10 April 2011 Takes three wickets in one over in career-best figures of 6 for 68 versus Hampshire
10 April Hits 135 not out against Hampshire on same day, including smashing first five balls in one over for six against spinner Liam Dawson
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