Switch Hit: Have England come up Trumps?
There was a moment on the final afternoon of the Rajkot Test when Ben Stokes swapped his position at slip with Ben Duckett and moved to extra cover.
With Adil Rashid bowling, the ball was being driven in that direction often and he wanted to be in the game more.
A little while later, with the batsmen stealing runs to Alastair Cook at mid-on, Stokes moved the England captain out of the way and took the position.
He had already been promoted to No. 4 in the batting line-up, as England searched for quick runs before the declaration, and he had proved himself England’s premier bowler of reverse swing in Bangladesh. Hell, he even bowled a few overs of off-spin in the UAE last year.
Increasingly, the answer to every question that England pose is ‘Ben Stokes’. Increasingly, he resembles that super-talented bloke in the school team who opens the batting and the bowling and then keeps wicket for a bit.
Now, sitting in the team hotel in Visakhapatnam (and looking so like a Van Gogh self-portrait that you fear for his ears), he laughs at the description. But he doesn’t deny it.
“It’s come from the coaches,” he says. “I’m always getting told, when the spinner is on and the ball is looking like it is going to a certain position all the time, go there. It was the same when Pujara was hitting the ball to Cooky at mid-on, I went over there.
“But I think I get given the responsibility to move myself and I have more confidence to do that. Rather than before, when I thought I’d look a bit arrogant if I just said ‘swap’, and it’s come from the coaches as well which is good. The players don’t take any offence.”
Ben Stokes has arguably been England’s best batsman, bowler and fielder in the subcontinent this winter © Associated Press
The desire to be in the thick of the action is nothing new for Stokes. But the confidence to ask players – including the England captain – to ‘swap’ positions is new and reflects Stokes’ new-found self-confidence and status within the side. At times this winter, he has looked England’s best batsman, best bowler and best fielder. At times this winter – and yes, these are relatively early days – it’s looked as if Stokes has graduated from ‘promising’ to the real thing. Notwithstanding Andrew Flintoff in his pomp, England haven’t had a better allrounder since Ian Botham.
Stokes agrees that he owes his improvement, to some extent at least, to the faith shown in him by the England management. In particular, he credits his promotion to No. 6 in the batting order as crucial.
“I started off decent in Australia, but after that it was pretty shit, to be honest,” he says. “I didn’t score a run against India in three innings. But they kept on picking me and picking me and, once Paul Farbrace got me back up the order to six, it carried on from there. The more I’ve played, the more confidence I’ve got. The last 18 months has been the turnaround period for me.”
Playing on low, slow, turning wickets was, in Cook’s words, probably the “last challenge” facing Stokes. But, after an innings of 85 in Chittagong and 128 in Rajkot, it seems he has made substantial progress. Working with Graham Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash, he learned a method to defend against spin bowling so that he is able to soak up periods of pressure and capitalise if the bowlers tire or stray.
“I’ve always known I can hit the big shots,” he says now. “But I tightened up the other things which don’t come as easy: the defensive side of it and rotating the strike. I was doing sessions of not getting out, playing defensively, going forward or back no matter what the ball was. As nets progressed, I started getting into a few more attacking shots.
“My feet have got better. I do not get stuck on the crease as much as I used to. It still happens now and again, but I’m generally getting right forward and right back. My technique against spinners has gone up a level and it’s good to be able to look back from a year ago and understand why I am being more successful.”
The century in Rajkot was, he believes, the first time he has batted for more than 200 balls in a single innings (he faced 198 for his epic 258 in Cape Town in January). While he accepts he had some luck – “there were times I was laughing at myself and the amount of times the ball seemed to land in between fielders” – he also hopes he has proved himself against what he calls “the best team in the world” and the “best bowler in the world”.
“Ravi Ashwin knows exactly where he is going to bowl every ball,” Stokes says. “He changes his pace and almost seems to read you. It’s almost like you are telling him that you’re going to run down the wicket and he bowls the ball where you don’t want it to be. And Ravi Jadeja doesn’t miss the area where he wants to bowl. To perform against them is a good feeling. It’s the best feeling I’ll have. All the work I’ve done is paying off.
“We take confidence from it that we got 530 or whatever it was and lost only two wickets on a fourth- and fifth-day pitch. So from that point of view I think we’re pretty confident in the way we managed to hold off those two.”
The demands of batting for so long in hot conditions took their toll on Stokes. Cramp forced him off the field and, for the first portion of the India reply, he was unable to play a meaningful role with the ball. He accepts this is partially due to his difficulty in eating while he is batting – he explains that it makes him uncomfortable – and left the England support staff, in his words, “trying to force-feed” him.
“Our physio, strength-and-conditioning coach and doctor were trying to force-feed me pretty much,” he says. “I can’t eat when I’m not out, I don’t know why. I literally can’t eat, not even a protein shake or anything. I’ve never been able to. I eat on a bowling day, definitely, just when I’m not out I can’t seem to eat anything.
“That was the reason for the cramp. I’ll have to put up with a bit of cramp here and there, I think. Everyone gets it, except Cooky because he never sweats so he doesn’t lose any fluid.
“I think this is the first time I’ve realised it is tough to bat and bowl and try to back one of the skills up with the other. It doesn’t really affect you in England because it is always freezing.”
For all the talk of giving Stokes responsibility – he was vice-captain to Jos Buttler when the ODI side played Bangladesh recently – he dismisses any suggestion that he might one day want to be captain.
“No,” he says when asked if the responsibility appeals. “You have to be boring like Cooky if you want to be captain. I’m just enjoying being where I am at the moment which is having opinions valued by captains, coaches and other guys.
“I enjoyed being Jos’s right hand man. It didn’t feel like I was doing anything different. The difference was Jos would have a few discussions whereas you normally see Cook and Rooty doing that or Eoin and Jos.”
He is frustrated, though, at England’s status as underdogs for this series, despite their improvement over the last 18 months or so – their Ashes win, their series victory in South Africa, their performance in the World T20 and an ODI series victory in Bangladesh that had proved beyond so many others of late.
“No matter what we have done over the last 18 months, we always seem to get underdogged,” he says. “But we pull something out of the bag, win and it seems a surprise to people. We are heading in the right direction in all forms of the game.
“Trevor Bayliss is a man of few words but one thing he complimented us on after every session in Rajkot was our attitude towards fielding. We were never switching off. We were always on it.
“We were not going into series thinking we were going to lose. We have taken a lot of confidence from knowing we were ahead of India pretty much the whole Test match. We have taken confidence from knowing how well we have done with bat and ball. We’ve four games left and we are going to try and win all four.”
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George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo