Bringing in the balance: Ben Stokes can change games with bat and ball © AFP
In the end, Ben Stokes was the key difference between the teams.
It was not just his runs and wickets that earned him the Man of the Series award in South Africa. You could argue that, despite being England’s top-scorer in the series, more than half of them came in the draw in Cape Town. And you could argue that, despite being his side’s second highest wicket-taker, he operated in a support capacity in the games England won in Durban and Johannesburg. You’d be wrong to argue that, but you could.
Stokes importance comes as much in the balance he offers the side. Stokes’ presence in the team gives England the depth to “bat to No. 13” in the words of the South Africa coach Russell Domingo as well as allowing them to include four seamers and a spinner in most conditions.
It allows them to avoid a situation where you have someone like Andy Caddick batting as high as No. 8 or a situation where too much is required of the specialist bowlers. If Graeme Swann had been part of a five-man attack more often, perhaps his elbow would have lasted a little longer. Stokes’ emergence may give James Anderson and Stuart Broad an extra year or two in the game.
It is Stokes’ batting that gains the most attention – not surprisingly when he produces innings like the 258 in Cape Town – but he is quickly developing into a fine seamer. He showed glimpses of his bowling ability in the Ashes Test at Trent Bridge when, with Anderson absent, he harnessed the conditions to devastate Australia with top-quality swing bowling.
Showing he has the versatility to adapt to different conditions, he bowled an 10-over spell in the second innings at Centurion that conceded just 15 runs and forced South Africa to delay their declaration until late in the fourth day. Had England batted better, it could have helped them save the Test.
Alastair Cook on Ben Stokes
With pace, control and an ability to coax movement out of the old and new ball, he might even develop into the replacement for Anderson. Certainly he out-bowled Chris Woakes on this tour and, given an opportunity with the new ball at some stage, would surely prove even more dangerous. He was the quickest member of England’s attack in Cape Town (90.3 mph), Johannesburg (92.7 mph) and Centurion (90 mph).
It was Phil Simmons who first suggested Stokes was a cricketer “in the mould” of Jacques Kallis. “He can take a game away with you with bat or ball,” Simmons said. “He’s the glue that holds the England team together. His bowling allows Jimmy Anderson to come back fresh and that’s a big thing. That’s the kind of cricketer you need.”
There were the expected howls of derision, but you knew what Simmons meant. And now Simmons’ words have been echoed by Domingo.
“England are very fortunate that they have what South Africa had a year or two ago: four frontline seamers and a spinner,” Domingo said after the game on Tuesday. “South Africa don’t have someone like Ben Stokes who scores hundreds and takes five-wicket hauls. Jacques Kallis used to do that.”
Nobody is claiming Stokes is like Kallis. But the role he fulfils is similar. And it is one England have lacked, except for a couple of years when Andrew Flintoff blossomed with bat and ball in 2004 and 2005, since the days of Ian Botham.
Ben Stokes’ bowling showed progression in South Africa © Getty Images
Great allrounders – and yes, Stokes has the potential to be just that – make great captains. Think of Mike Brearley, who had Botham at his best, or Michael Vaughan, who had Flintoff at his peak. Alastair Cook has a gem in Stokes and he knows it.
“We’re very lucky to have Stokesy,” Cook said. “It is the ideal having that allrounder who can bowl close on 90mph when he gets it right and score 250 from 190 balls. Most people want that. He does balance your side very well and you can see the problems if he’s not in the side.”
“He certainly balances the side and he’s had a fantastic tour. I’m very lucky to captain him and English cricket is very lucky to have him coming into the prime of his career. Hopefully over the next five or six years he will be amazing.”
Cook did offer a little caution, though. With Stokes encouraged to embrace the aggressive instincts, with the bat in particular, they will be days – months, even – when his big shots find hands not stands. There may be times when he tests patience.
It is to be hoped that the desire to encourage the aggression is not black and white. While the naturally attacking batting style is clearly the default, there will be times he is required to defend and deflect; times he has to play it smart as well as instinctively. He has the potential to be much better than a one-trick pony whose reaction to every situation is aggression. He has the potential to be a very good Test batsman, but to fulfil it he will have to learn all the gears required for batting at this level.
“Of course he can get better and there will be times when he gets caught in the deep,” Cook said. “But you’re going to definitely have to give him the rub of the green and let him play like that because that’s the way he plays and when he’s on he can win games of cricket.”
South Africa are learning what England discovered once Botham retired: it takes two players to replace them.
Had Kallis still been available to South Africa, perhaps Dale Steyn would not have felt obliged to return to the field in Durban and try to bowl despite his obvious injury concerns? Perhaps they would have had the depth of batting (Kyle Abbott batted at No. 8) to recover from their poor start in Durban; the depth of bowling to punish England for their poor start in Cape Town and the options to ensure Kagiso Rabada, a special but fragile talent, is not over bowled before his career can even flourish?
Great allrounders change everything. And England might just have one.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo