Ashes 2015: Quite simply, Ben Stokes has Aussies worried

Throwback all-rounder is in devastating form and is relishing making Darren Lehmann’s men suffer the way they hurt England in Ashes Down Under

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The Independent Online

On that last ill-fated expedition to Australia, Ben Stokes was asked if he relished the fray. Stokes did not quite pick up the question and when it was put a second time, he admitted to being confused.

“Is it fair to say you’re up for it?” the questioner rephrased. “Aye, I’m up for it, is that all right?” came the reply. The brief interlude said a little about Stokes and his approach to life and cricket.

There is no time for the fancy bits, the pomp and the circumstance. Quite simply, Stokes wants to hit the ball as far as he can and bowl it as fast as he can and stop it as quickly as he can and never let one of his opponents get the better of him. Relish the fray, indeed. What a risibly pompous way that is to try to engage a fellow like Stokes.

He is a throwback, a lovely, uncomplicated cricketer who loves doing the lot and does it all well. He trains like a demon but he likes a drink (he was sent back from an England tour to Australia two years ago because he liked one too many one night).

He is a man of the people and it is impossible not to draw comparison with his two most recent predecessors as dashing England all-rounders, Sir Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff. It is possible that Tony Greig might come into that mix, though it might be harder with Trevor Bailey.

In the past month or so, Stokes has made a deep impression on English cricket and may be the underlying force which has propelled their renaissance of style. It was Stokes who played the most breathtaking innings of this summer so far by making a hundred from 85 balls against New Zealand, the fastest in a Test at Lord’s.

Nobody could quite believe what they were seeing. The ball seemed at his mercy and Stokes knew it. That followed an innings that might have been more impressive, his measured 92 in the first innings of that match when he came in with England at 30 for 4. He and Joe Root put on 161 in difficult circumstances. It was then we knew the future was with us.

Stokes in action in the first Test

Stokes is part of this team now, the No 6 batsman, the fourth seamer in a five-man bowling attack. It took the selectors and him a little while to reach this eminently sensible arrangement, more than England could afford. There are faults on both sides.

“I think it’s maybe down to having a more consistent role in the team,” he said yesterday at Lord’s, as England regrouped for the second Investec Test against Australia, which begins tomorrow. “I think when I first started, I was in a bit of limbo about where I was.”

The dividends have been immediate. As they were, indeed, when England first dipped their toe in the water with the idea on the Ashes tour of 2013-14. Called up for the second Test in Adelaide, Stokes played the part immediately.

He made his maiden Test hundred in his second appearance, in Perth, and in his fourth, in Sydney, took 6 for 99, respectively in the series England’s solitary century and one of only two five-wicket hauls. It was the manner he went about his work that marked him out, as much as the success.

He relished the fray. He still does and he is relishing, too, what has been happening to England this summer as they have re-engaged with their followers in astonishing fashion. Although they drew the Test series with New Zealand 1-1 after winning the first match, they won the one-dayers which followed with some grandstanding exhibitions and then, lo and behold, held on to their form and spirit in the first Ashes Test in Cardiff.

“I think the momentum we’d built up throughout the summer was carried over to Cardiff,” he said. “We were full of confidence going into that because we knew how successful we’d been.

“From the training camp in Spain to the few days leading up to the game, the preparation all went really well. We went into that Test with a really good feel about it.

“It’s pretty much the way the whole team is going about it. It’s not just me. I think it probably brings the best out of all of us in the playing XI, always trying to take the positive route and always trying to be on top. If we can carry that on into this game, then hopefully we should get the same result.”

Stokes is now marked out for greatness. It is tempting to say “steady the buffs, let the chap develop in his own time”, but there is a keen sense that the time is upon us. He seems remarkably untouched by the attention, the expectations, the buzz around him – “people can say it is extra pressure but I do not find there is any extra pressure on me”. He is still a lad who wants to play cricket.

Australia, you understand, know how good he is, know that he could be in their way for a decade. So, surreptitiously, they are standing in his way. Stokes has had a little habit over the last year or so of sweeping the crease with his bat at the end of an over.

Brad Haddin, the combative wicketkeeper, remembered it from England’s last tour and mentioned that Stokes was still doing it. David Warner and Nathan Lyon took it upon themselves to stand in his way (this was the new, nice, quiet Australia who otherwise barely said boo to a goose at Sophia Gardens).

Stokes said of Warner: “I just said, ‘you can stand there all day because I’m not moving until you move. If you want to get your captain’s over-rate down, then so be it’.” Eventually Warner shifted.

Stokes was elated with the win last Saturday, unafraid to see it as part payback for the 5-0 drubbing that England received in Australia – or express his motivation to return the compliment.

“Massive,” he said. “When Rooty caught the catch at the end it was like revenge. When they were eight wickets down, I was thinking about how we felt when we were getting beat every game. To be on the verge of winning when they were eight wickets down and after what they did to us in Australia was pretty cool.”