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Ben Stokes is England's premier star

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Ben_Stokes_England_Cricket_TestChange may be the only constant, but cricket fans the world over would not mind being drawn back into the past, to an era where all-rounders thrived and flourished. Proper, genuine all-rounders who could change the complexion of the game with either bat or ball in any situation. The likes of Imran Khan, Sir Garry Sobers, Sir Ian Botham, Shaun Pollock, Kapil Dev, Sir Richard Hadlee and Jacques Kallis made a huge impact on the cricketing realm but unfortunately, their retirement left void that has seemed almost impossible to fill.

In the age of T20 cricket, where cricketers are expected to play a few loose shots and bowl just a couple of tight overs, the definition of the term ‘all-rounder’ has drastically changed. The likes of Hardik Pandya, Glenn Maxwell and Ravichandran Ashwin nonchalantly walk into the category. While Pandya is seen as the next Kapil Dev, and in all fairness he has the skills, Maxwell and Ashwin are part-timers and are more likely to win the match with the bat and ball respectively.

Among the dwindling number of quality players, Ben Stokes stands apart. He has consistently made a habit of winning games and turning the tide with either the willow or cherry.

The Englishman has a batting average of 34.28 in 43 Test matches and a bowling average of 32.97 - thus passing the first clause wherein the all-rounder should preferably have a batting average higher than the bowling mark. He has six Test hundreds, including a knock of 258. With 104 wickets, Stokes is a player who has been indispensable ever since he made his debut in 2013-14 the Ashes.

 

In the 16 matches that England has won with Stokes in their side, the all-rounder has batted with an average that touches 38 and made two hundreds. In these Tests, he has scalped 43 wickets at an average of 24.53. His average difference of 13.42 displays his skills and his worth to a side that were in dire need of an all-rounder ever since Andrew Flintoff walked away into the sunset. But more important than figures, it is Stokes’ temperament and his never-say-die persona that keeps pushing him to perform in crunch situations. Almost on cue, Stokes rises to the occasion when his team is in dire straits, and more often than not helps his side over the line.

 

It all started when a young Stokes scored his maiden Test century in just his fourth innings, five years ago in the Ashes at the WACA. The lone player to score a hundred from England in the series till then, Stokes impressed with his ability to play the pace of Mitchell Johnson and the swing of Ryan Harris even as his more illustrious teammates failed to get going. He navigated the back foot and the front foot with ease, defending solidly and leaving easily to get to 120 when the game situation was desperate. He impressed with his counterattacking skills and his shots that screamed out technique. Crisp straight drives. Pull shots that saw the ball hurrying away in front of square. Straight drives against Nathan Lyon’s off-spin. And most importantly, a calm head in England’s total of 353, that was still not enough to salvage a draw.

Over the next few years, Stokes kept pitching in with regular performances to ensure that he was not just seen as a one-match wonder. He announced his intentions to be in the side for the long run in the first Test match against New Zealand at Lord’s in 2015, where he notched up a ninety and a hundred in the two innings and returned with the ball to strike off consecutive balls, landing up with the Man of the Match award. As the Kiwis raced away to a mammoth 134-run lead, the match was almost lost until Alastair Cook and Joe Root steadied the ship. However, it took a blinder from Stokes - a 92-ball 101 with three sixes and fifteen fours - to well and truly take the game away from the visiting side. The consecutive wickets of Kane Williamson and Brendon McCullum sealed the deal and as England celebrated, a new star was born.

 

The impact of Stokes whilst batting is gauged from the way he paces his innings. By starting off slowly, he remains cautious but as the knock gathers steam his stroke play can even be termed outrageous. His knock of 258 against South Africa at Newlands in January 2016 was one of the most destructive knocks played, with records tumbling every minute. He butchered the ball and sent it flying when the ball looked well set to hit the stumps. He cut and drove and thrashed the bowlers, taking only 35 deliveries to go from 100 to 150 and a further 28 to reach 200. By the time he reached his maiden double hundred, off only 163 balls - the second fastest double hundred then, the South African bowlers had been battered and bruised; the length balls dispatched and the short balls being pulled away mercilessly.

 

For all those who argued against his talent in the slow and dry tracks of Asia, Stokes announced himself as a player for all conditions when he maintained his composure to take England to a safe corner with the bat in Bangladesh. After gaining an unexpected 45-run lead, England had been reduced to 46/4 and the track was made even more devilish courtesy the slower balls bowled by Shakib Al Hasan and Mehedi Hasan.

The batsman refused to counterattack from the word goes and instead waited and waited for the singles and the odd bad balls. Till he was on 39, he had not hit a single boundary and his knock of 85, alongside his unbelievable figures of 4/26 in 14 overs crippled the rival team. He held his nerve to wipe away the Bangla unit when they needed just 22 to win. His spell of reverse swing on a placid wicket showed how eager the English team would have been to wrap the Durham all-rounder in cotton wool.

With yet another all-round performance at Kennington Oval against the Proteas last year, where he followed up his first innings hundred with two consecutive wickets with the ball in the fourth innings to push South Africa on the back foot, Stokes has ensured that he will be in the reckoning for a long time to come. The fact that England could have reversed the trend in the Ashes if Stokes had been present in the team and not engulfed in a court trial speaks volumes of his influence.

After bowling his heart out and gifting England a victory in the close game against India at Birmingham, Stokes has opened the way to reach greater heights. All it took was four overs to change the game against India. All that England would hope now is that their premier player can mend his ways so that off-field incidents do not keep him away from national duty.

 

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