We live in an age when analysts believe almost everything can be measured. Win-rates, strike-rates, heart-rates, economy-rates… you name it, someone can put a figure on it.
And there’s no doubt such statistics can provide insight and illumination. But not everything that counts can be counted.
So it is with Ben Stokes. He finished the Cape Town Test with the unremarkable figures of 3 for 69 with the ball and 119 runs between his two innings with the bat. Decent, for sure. But unremarkable.
But anyone who was lucky enough to be at Newlands in recent days – and on Tuesday, in particular – will know they saw a special performance by a special cricketer at the peak of his powers. And they will know, too, that figures don’t just mislead: they lie and cheat and try to sell you double-glazing.
The point is this: Stokes was magnificent in Cape Town. With bat and ball and in the field, he produced performances that contributed heavily to England’s first win at this ground since 1957. And while our sport can sometimes seem unhealthily preoccupied with personal statistics, it should never be forgotten that this is a team game. So while some players – quite a lot of players, really – always have an eye on their average or personal milestones, Stokes is interested only in the team dynamic and the result.
Consider his second innings here. Stokes thrashed a half-century in 34 balls. That means Sir Ian Botham is the only man to have hit one in fewer deliveries for England (albeit with the caveat that the number of deliveries was not always counted). More importantly, it meant England were able to build on Dom Sibley’s foundations and set up a position whereby they could declare on the second afternoon. Bearing in mind that they achieved this victory with just 50 balls left in the match and Stokes’ input seems more important than ever.
You can’t play that sort of innings if you are worried about your average. You can’t think of reverse-sweeping seamers and spinners alike if you have any thought in your head other than accelerating your side’s innings. You don’t get caught at long-on if you are eking out the runs required to bring up a century.
He was no less impressive with the ball. You could make a strong case to argue that Stokes is, at this stage, one of the best swing bowlers available to England. Just consider his performance at Trent Bridge in 2015 when, with James Anderson absent, it fell to him to fulfil the role of swing bowler. He responded by moving the ball in and out at pace for figures of 6 for 36.
Equally, you could make a case to argue that he is England’s most hostile bowler. True, he has never quite generated the pace of Mark Wood in St Lucia or Jofra Archer at Lord’s. But, day in, day out, when those two are either injured or struggling to find their mojo, it is Stokes who responds to his captain’s call to ensure the batsmen aren’t too comfortable at the crease. Take his performance in Colombo in 2018, when he complemented the spinners by bowling long, fast spells (all four of his wickets in that match came from short balls) that ignored the risk of leaking runs. Not all bowlers are prepared to embrace that equation.
In the second innings here, Stokes did not come on until the 40th over. By then, the pitch had died and the ball offered nothing. He was England’s seventh-choice bowler. And yet he bowled as fast as anyone in the match (regularly over 90 mph) and somehow found some life – and not a peaceful life, but a hellish, hate-filled life full of searing pace and rearing bouncers – to discomfort everyone who faced him.
It will be his final spell, the spell that clinched the match, which draws attention. But his spell on the fourth evening – seven overs of wonderfully hostile bowling which brought no personal reward – which really stood out. At a time when the batsmen had started to look ominously settled, he offered threat and peril. And who can measure whether his unsettling spell led, in part at least, to Zubayr Hamza’s tentative prod at Anderson shortly afterwards?
And then there’s that final spell. The stats tell us it can be measured in terms of its three wickets for the cost of one run in 28 balls. What they don’t tell us is that, by then, Anderson was broken, Stuart Broad and Sam Curran were looking impotent and that the spinners were required at the other end. They don’t tell us, either, that Stokes had decided that he wasn’t going to relinquish the ball until the job was done. That, when the pressure was at its greatest, he was the man who wanted to be in the thick of the action.
This was a spell that brought back memories of that Leeds game. In that match, Stokes had second-innings figures of 24.2-7-56-3. Which again look decent but unremarkable. Until you realise it was achieved in a single spell split only by stumps on one night and four balls from Archer before he suffered an attack of cramp.
There was a revealing moment in that match. In the fourth innings, he reached his century with 37 runs still needed for victory. “I didn’t really care,” he said afterwards. “Personal milestones mean nothing.” And you believed him. Because he didn’t celebrate at the time or give it all away immediately afterwards. He had his eyes set only on the win. Only after that was achieved did he celebrate.
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The great disadvantage Stokes has as a bowler is that he does not have himself as a catcher in the slips. Here, in the first innings, he claimed a record five catches; no England player (other than a keeper) has held as many in an innings; no player from any country (other than a keeper) has held more. Truly, Stokes could catch Moriarty, Blofeld and Lord Lucan.
Nobody should be surprised by any of this. When the World Cup was slipping away, it was Stokes who delivered. When the series against Australia was all but lost at Leeds, it was Stokes who delivered. And when Root had nowhere to turn in Cape Town, it was Stokes he trusted and Stokes who delivered. There are, basically, two types of cricket lovers: those who appreciate what a fine player Stokes is. And idiots. It speaks volumes for the worthlessness of the ICC rankings that he is placed third in their Test allrounder rankings.
As Stokes was the first to point out after the match, the most pleasing aspect of this performance, from an England perspective, was that the whole team contributed. Yes, some players – Dom Sibley and Anderson – registered personal milestones which will jump out from scorecards when people review them in a hundred years. And yes, shortly after that, the inputs of Ollie Pope, with his first-innings half-century, Root, with his second-innings runs, may gain a nod of appreciation.
But then there’s the likes of Zak Crawley, who held a couple of vital catches, Stuart Broad, who moved Anderson to leg slip and trapped Rassie van der Dussen there with his next delivery, Joe Denly, who claimed the two left-handers, Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock, with his leg-spin aimed into the foot-holes, Dom Bess, who allowed England’s bowlers to rotate and recover in the first innings and Sam Curran, who took a couple of key wickets from nowhere. There were countless other cameos, too. All contributed.
But most of all there was Ben Stokes. And what the analysts won’t be able to measure is the way he makes the man next to him want to perform better; the way he makes the man next to him retain belief when logic suggests it should be waning; the way he inspires and leads and keeps going when others are wearied and broken.
Forget the stats. You can’t measure love or loyalty or most of the things that really matter. It’s more that their veracity becomes apparent to us at times of need. Ben Stokes is a great team player. There’s no higher praise than that.
Source: ESPN Crickinfo