In the first innings of the second Test, Ben Stokes came on to bowl as part of a Joe Root double change. He then bowled two expensive overs and was then replaced, by Moeen Ali.
For the remainder of the innings, I had this nagging question as the first ball got softer and there may have been a chance of reverse swing. Where was Ben Stokes? The answer was that he fielded at slip – a place he fielded for the entirety of the second innings.
England’s all-rounder, their Swiss Army knife, the answer to so many conundrums over his career, had only bowled two overs for the match.
Now this may be a one-off, an aberration. Give him the pink ball in the next Test and he’ll be Stokes again.
Or maybe it is the rare evolution of a cricketer with the talents to be able to pull it off.
I love the way Ben Stokes plays, as he does it with complete enthusiasm and commitment, but I believe that it comes with a price. He simply cannot bear the physical brunt of this way of playing. Like watching James Brown at a concert, he seemingly can’t go on, then somehow finds the spirit and energy to come back and continue to give it everything.
Now, for a traditional all-rounder, this is capital T trouble, the beginning of the end, if not further forward. Botham and Flintoff could not endure the atrophy of one of their gifts, the remaining ones not up to the job.
I believe that Ben Stokes is England’s best all-rounder. Not just the best of his generation, but ever. The reason why? He is a world-class batsman. I cannot think of a squad or fringe player who could endanger his position at No 5 in England’s batting order.
His 2019 Headingley hundred was one of the greatest individual fourth innings performances – maybe Brian Lara, Kusal Perera and Kyle Meyers may argue with him about greatest ever. Then look at the 2020 West Indies bubble series where he hit a century, a destructive half century as an opener and two scores of 40+.
There was also a development of the craft. Not just bang and crash and hope, but the evolution of an innings. His first Test knock at the beginning of day 2 in this series was the perfect foil for the long-term occupation of the crease from his captain. He was as comfortable as any English batsman in the second Test, his innings ending to a ball from Ashwin that would have got anyone out.
I can only think of two cricketers who have evolved in anything like a similar way: Jacques Kallis and Gary Sobers. The invoking of these names hopefully gives you an idea of the rare air that Stokes’ talent takes him to.
The price we must pay for this evolution is the balance of the side. The fifth bowling option. Without Stokes, well where does it come from? Who may have to fall on their sword for the aim of greater team flexibility?
Almost all options are unproven except one. And on the surface, it may appear a strange option, but it comes from within, rather than outside, the camp. Someone who seems to bowl almost under protest rather than to be that genuine fifth option.
I believe that England’s next all-rounder should be Joe Root.
If pink ball cricket in India is as advertised all across the rest of the world, and all players are fit, I would bring Archer (Wood if he’s unfit) and Anderson in for Moeen and Stone. However, I think the person who would need the most convincing of this option would be Root himself.
Ben Stokes has left it all out on the field, given his absolute heart and soul and got the best of his talents. Maybe it’s time for the Captain to use all of his.