Ben Stokes’s promotion to the vice captaincy may have come as a surprise to some, given his sometimes volatile temperament and a competitive streak that often led to confrontation. All part of the maturing process, it seems, as he looks to relish his ascendancy within the England ranks.
That Stokes is a vastly talented cricketer has never been in doubt, even as a precocious teenager with Durham when he was accelerated into the England ranks with a debut in the white ball formats at the end of the 2011 English summer. Six years on and Stokes has started to cement his batting potential with a bit of consistency.
In the current series against South Africa, the all rounder has hit two half centuries and a brutal century at the Oval that did much to propel England victory in that Test. He’s the third highest run scorer in the series, trailing only Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow.
His interjections with the ball remain somewhat sporadic, but perhaps unlike the most natural comparison of recent years, Andrew Flintoff, Stokes is a batting all rounder. His Test batting average of 34.19 compared to Flintoff’s 31.77 syas as much, whilst his bowling average of 34.46 compared to Flintoff’s 32.78 lends further credence to the suggestion. Freddie never could pouch the catches quite like Stokes, though!
He has always been a player who can reach higher highs than those around him. When his stars are aligned, he’s a punishing batsman, a devastating bowler and a breath taking fielder. Those highs, however, have been offset by some off days, too.
At Lord’s in the first Test against South Africa, he struck a patient first innings 50 that helped to set up a dominant first innings for England. At the Oval he took England’s first innings by the scruff of the neck and plundered a century. At Old Trafford, he struck a crucial first innings half century to again lay the foundations of some brutal lower order hitting from Bairstow.
When he’s off, however, he’s off. At Trent Bridge – where he was by no means alone in letting standards slip – he claimed 2/77 and 2/34 with the ball and 0 and 18 with the bat.
It would be remiss to hammer a player for having an off game, as they can happen to anyone. When Stokes is firing, however, England reap rich rewards and he has been something of a poster boy for England’s wildly oscillating performances; brilliant one game, limp the next.
It is therefore encouraging that he is beginning to show signs of consistency and maturity and that this might be seeping into the England squad at large. He was clearly irked by the criticism aimed at the team after Trent Bridge and produced an obdurate innings at the Oval, knuckling down in tricky conditions before unleashing his range of hitting to reach a sparkling century.
There was the talent, allied to patience and determination. This is Stokes coming of age, justifying his elevated position as vice captain. He has every reason to look back on this series with great pride.
By Miles Reucroft