Ben Stokes: From the ashes of England ignominy, the all-rounder is rising as the real deal
Perth performance shows he could be his country's next great multi-talented player but, he tells Stephen Brenkley, he must add consistency
Continue the following sequence: F S Jackson, J W H T Douglas, T E Bailey, A W Greig, I T Botham, A Flintoff. It is not yet possible to offer the answer with absolute certainty, indeed it may take a couple more years but after the events of the second and third Tests a decent stab would be: B A Stokes.
In the slim shape of the sandy-haired, softly spoken, tough-as-teak 22-year-old athlete from Durham, England appear to have found the latest in a list of illustrious all-rounders. The innings of 120 that Ben Stokes played against Australia in Perth earlier this week was of the vintage variety. It was meticulously combative, pristinely executed. In its stand-and-deliver style it was reminiscent of another name on that list, Tony Greig.
Stokes also bowls at a fair lick and was one of England's faster bowlers on his debut in Adelaide. Standing tall at the crease he has a whippy action, which offers reverse swing and has already yielded him five Test wickets, including Michael Clarke twice. Added to which he fields like a demon. In Durham's Championship season he scored 615 runs and took 42 wickets at averages, respectively, a shade above and below 27, which is the way it should be for a genuine all-rounder.
Had he still been around, Greig would have loved both the style and content. No cricketer better recognised the worth of both commodities and in all-rounders they are invaluable. Sadly, Greig died almost a year ago, just too soon to see in full glory a young chap who may assume his mantle.
Like Greig, Stokes was born overseas – in Stokes' case, New Zealand. Unlike Greig, he did not seek out England because it offered a career in cricket – he arrived in Cumbria as an 11-year-old because his dad, a former international rugby league star, became coach at Workington.
Before his magnificent innings on a crack-strewn Waca pitch, Stokes had twice sprung to prominence as a young sportsman. In May 2010, when he was still 18, he scored a Championship hundred in his fifth first-class game for Durham, which had a wider currency than usual because it was one of the lucky few county games to have been televised. There is still no better shop window – it worked for Flintoff before him – and his career was closely charted from that moment by more than the selectors.
Stokes was busy learning his trade: bowling, batting and fielding, becoming a prominent member of Durham's XI. He had an injury or two with which to contend but his general progress was upward.
Then last year he was sent home from an England A tour in Australia for late-night transgressions. Not only was he an all-rounder to reckon with, he was also a bit of a lad. These are all-round qualities beloved of spectators everywhere but which mean the possessor of them has to watch it. Since Andy Flower, the England coach, was visiting the young charges at the time, it was not the wisest moment to commit his misdemeanours.
"I didn't think I'd blown it," he said after the England party arrived in Melbourne fresh from their hammering in Perth. "I just had to make sure that what I did from there on out was to prove a point to Andy and the selectors. Everything I did had to be that extra little bit more professional. I got the chance and here I am today."
In hindsight, it was probably the reminder he needed of what is demanded of a professional sportsman. If that were not sufficient, becoming a father 14 months ago, when he was still only 21, has also assisted the progress towards maturity.
"I don't think it was my attitude," he said. "I've always thought I've had a good attitude towards my cricket. I still think I'm a bit of a lad but there were just certain things that needed a bit of sharpening up and realising that you can go and have a beer but you have to be professional. It was just about professionalism really."
An all-rounder might complete the perfect cricket side but he is invariably a bonus. England have had few. Jackson was authentic but never played a single Test abroad. Douglas, who averaged around 30 with bat and ball, was a dour cricketer but probably receives less than his due.
The others on the list are the real deal. Bailey held down the position – occasionally opening the batting and the bowling – through most of the Fifties but it was not until Greig came along in the early Seventies that an enduring successor was found. To cricketing skills Greig added a charisma and competitiveness which made him outstanding.
The end of his playing days overlapped with the start of Botham's bravura career. So fundamental was Botham to England's method that the selectors spent a fruitless, decade-long search trying to find someone to emulate him. Eventually, as a gift from the gods Flintoff arrived, surviving just long enough in the stratosphere to justify his talent.
England have not made the mistake of trying to find the new Fred in the period since he retired in 2009. Instead, they have been careful to say that, of course, an all-rounder would be invaluable, but in the absence of one, team balance is more important.
Hence the six batsmen, a wicketkeeper-batsman (in essence an all-rounder himself) and four bowlers that has been preferred. Stokes's advent changes all that. Although he has been around for four years in the first-class game he has emerged suddenly. When he was picked in the squad for this tour, it was difficult to think that he would play in the Tests unless there was a confluence of circumstances.
They occurred because Michael Carberry was opening by default, Jonathan Trott went home, Joe Root moved up the order and England picked two spinners in Adelaide. While they did not pick two spinners in Perth, Stokes could not be dropped by then because he so looked the part. He played cricket with skill and attitude, he relished the contest. It was wonderful to see.
"It's how I like to play cricket," he said. "When someone gets a bit mouthy with you it makes you switch on and really feel like you're in a fight. And if you're in a fight you want to win a fight, so I like it when it gets like that."
Like his four immediate predecessors – Flintoff, Botham, Greig and Bailey – he has a bit about him. There will be no backward steps, plenty of forward ones.
"If someone has something to say to you, you're not going to back down from it," he said. "You have to show them that if they can dish it out… that's the way I like to play cricket. I don't think I was sucked in at Adelaide. But in Perth there wasn't much said to me and I didn't say much to them because it wasn't needed."
At 22, it is all before him and the general rigours of bowling and batting in big cricket have not taken a toll on his body. They probably will, as they did with Botham and Flintoff, though he is probably more naturally athletic than both. He is not sure at which skill he is superior, batting or bowling.
"I still think my batting is my stronger point but I have to be a bit more consistent," he said. "I showed that in my first two seasons with Durham. If I can get that back and my bowling keeps getting better and better, hopefully I will be that genuine all-rounder.
"You can't live off one performance. I have a good opportunity to go out there and try to do it. I have to back it up, make sure I can do it on more than one occasion, show that it wasn't a fluke."
The Ashes have gone, Stokes offers a reason why they might come back.
All-round greats: Stokes v England stars
Batt av/Bowl av
S Jackson 48.79/33.29
T Greig 40.43/32.20
I Botham 33.54/28.40
A Flintoff 31.77/32.78
T Bailey 29.74/29.21
J Douglas 29.15/33.02
B Stokes 41.75/47.00
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