Ben Stokes: Ian Botham’s epic days recalled by bravura show of power and will

It was an innings of such rapacious beauty it made cricket’s most arresting backdrop disappear

Cue kids in their thousands abandoning footballs for cricket bats on the playing fields of England. Had Ben Stokes ripped the innings of his life two weeks ago, he might have set a record for sales of the willow at Christmas as well as those he rewrote in the middle yesterday.

This was an innings of such rapacious beauty it made the most arresting backdrop in cricket, Cape Town’s Table Mountain, disappear. Newlands had eyes only for the inked torso of Stokes, smashing the ball to all parts in one of the greatest demonstrations of power hitting the old game has seen.

Poor Jonny Bairstow. Rarely has a maiden century by an Englishman abroad been so readily relegated to the footnotes of a day’s play. That is how transformational Stokes’ knock was. Bairstow heaved his way to an unbeaten 150 off 191 balls, which would have made headlines on any other afternoon. Not this, not when the bloke at the other end soared to 258 off only seven balls more.

Yes, Morne Morkel apart, this was a callow South Africa attack. Yet it was sharp enough to have England five down for 223, the kind of pivotal juncture where hitherto, on far too many occasions, their batting has withered. No. This was an outcome determined by the will of one man, a cricketer capable in the right conditions of rescaling the parameters of what is possible.

Stokes plays the game as if he were in the schoolyard, engaging in a spot of lunchtime bat and ball. Against this mood, the hard, red cherry in the hands of the opposition attack carries no more menace than a tennis ball. His bat becomes a bludgeon, making goalkeepers of fielders trying to keep the scoreboard from melting. Some hope. More than a quarter of his 41 boundaries flew the ropes, including a record 11 sixes for goodness sake.

So, with the second-fastest double hundred in Test history, Stokes enters fable, up there not only with the dream-makers of the English game but the greats of world cricket, a player capable of drawing in the casual observer as well as the aficionado. Former England captain Michael Vaughan ventured on Twitter that he had seen “a bit of [Adam] Gilchrist and [Sir Garfield] Sobers mixed into Ben Stokes”.

Should Stokes continue with this kind of bravura cricket, the big beef himself, Sir Ian Botham, will be concerned for his place as the all-rounder in England’s all-time XI. Botham had previously held the record for England’s quickest double hundred, posted 34 years ago against India in 226 balls. Stokes was home in just 163 deliveries. 

Botham’s crossover moment had come in the Ashes the year before, which thereafter carried his name. He was up against a good Australia side, something denied Stokes in Cape Town, where the South African attack is without the injured quicks Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander. But to suggest this episode might not have been cast in bronze in any case fails to take into account the kind of singular character Stokes is, something Botham recognised in claiming this was the best performance in Test cricket he had seen for some time.

“Ben Stokes is box office. We knew he’d got it, and this is the tip of the iceberg,” Botham said. “He’ll get it wrong once in a while but he is a guy that wins matches, and they don’t come along very often. You’re just king of the castle. No boundary’s big enough, no bowler’s quick enough, it really is a moment to enjoy.”

Stokes might have been a lion on the loose yesterday, a beast with its eyes locked on lunch, and ravenous with it. As Botham remarked, it won’t always be like this. That this was only his third century in 37 knocks tells its own tale. There are days when instead of consuming the opposition, the great well of raw energy turns inward and he burns himself. How long before the next self-inflicted injury is sustained, taking lumps out of his body as well as locker doors? 

In this he can be usefully classified as a cricketing Eric Cantona, a combustible meld of audacity, courage, ingenuity and zeal. The virtuoso sees the game in a different way, not confined by convention. Just as Cantona took the game beyond opponents with his verve and self-belief in the service of Manchester United, so Stokes changes the complexion of a contest with his unfettered ball-striking, particularly on quick surfaces where the ball races on to the bat. 

 

As former England captain Nasser Hussain observed before the start of play, there would have been no instruction from the team’s hierarchy on how Stokes should play. That kind of orthodoxy is counter-productive with him.

The England management team deserve a deal of credit for the way they have harnessed the volcano. The bright idea of assistant coach Paul Farbrace, endorsed by his superior Trevor Bayliss, to lock Stokes in at six has given him the freedom and confidence to play his own game without fear of reproach, a licence to fail in other words, that on days such as these pays handsome dividends. 

Morkel, a bowler of some standing, was little more than fodder in that first session, no distinction made between the leader of the attack and the lesser bowlers. The torrent of runs reached 110 off Stokes’ bat alone before lunch. Even his dismissal defied convention, run out by AB de Villiers after the South Africa talisman had let a steepler slip through his fingers. A packed Newlands was on its feet to applaud Stokes as he walked to the hutch with bat raised.

Bairstow accelerated towards the end of his innings as England sought 600 in short order, but for the best part of the morning he was little more than an onlooker blessed with the best seat in the house 22 yards away. Stokes resumed on 74 and had reached his double century before Bairstow, restarting on 42, had notched his ton. Insane.

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