There was, for the first time in his Test career and perhaps his life, a moment’s hesitation in Ben Stokes. He had come off the field after taking 6 for 99 in his fourth Test match and was asked if he relished the fray.
“What’s ‘the fray’ mean, mate? Don’t use those big words with me,” he said, being perfectly smart enough to know where this might lead. But was he up for it? “Yeah, I’m up for it, there you go,” he said.
Indeed he was and indeed he is. Stokes, the young cricketer of the year, is by the length of Mitchell Johnson’s moustache (Johnson was treading on it as he ran to the wicket yesterday) the best thing to have happened to England in this series.
After scoring his maiden hundred in his second Test he took his maiden five-wicket haul in his fourth. Among all-rounders of recent vintage, Ian Botham took five wickets in his first Test innings and scored a hundred in his fourth, Andrew Flintoff took until his 13th and 32nd respectively. Stokes has noticed the difference in class.
“The standard that you have to play to with both bat and ball,” he said. “Any sort of width gets punished. The standard of bad balls that you don’t receive off the bowlers is another thing I’ve noticed. With a guy bowling 150 clicks at your head you don’t get that much in county cricket. Forty thousand people as well. The atmosphere gives you an uplift.”
There are those who would be intimidated – which is the difference often between those who make it and those who do not – but Stokes not only refuses to take a step backward, he is quite willing to take some forward. He bristles as though he likes it all, as though he relishes the fray.
England might have felt slightly miffed about Brad Haddin’s continual success in this series, buttressed as it has been by a share of good fortune. But Stokes did not make the mistake of whingeing about it.
“Haddin has played well all series and has played his natural game every innings so far,” he said. “When a guy is playing like that against you, you have to hold up your hands. It is just the way he comes out and plays his natural game. Quite a lot has gone his way but fair play to him.”
Stokes still thinks of himself as a batsman who bowls and, if pushed, would be happier with his Test hundred than his six wickets. He seems to know exactly what this game is about and how harsh a mistress it can be. He seems ready for that too, now that people are calling him the next this and the next that.
“If that is what people are saying then thanks,” he said. “It is just feet on the floor. The success I have had so far can easily turn around and people will be writing me off.”
Not yet, not even in the meanest streets.