As expected, England named a debutant in their line-up for the second Ashes Test at the Adelaide Oval. Unexpectedly, that debutant was Durham all-rounder Ben Stokes, rather than Yorkshire’s powerful left-hander Gary Ballance. Many had anticipated Ballance would win his first Test cap after impressing in the tour game at Alice Springs, or that his Yorkshire team mate Tim Bresnan would return to the starting line-up after proving his fitness in England’s Performance Programme team.
The number six position has been a thorn in England’s side since the retirement of Paul Collingwood. A number of contenders have been tried. The latest of these, Jonny Bairstow is yet to reach a century in 12 tests and only averaged 29 in the home Ashes series this year before being left out of the final Test in favour of Chris Woakes.
Perhaps England’s selection of Woakes in that final Test at The Oval gave us an insight into England’s thinking, blooding a bowling all-rounder at the expense of an out-and-out batsman at number six. Unfortunately for Woakes, he looked unthreatening and now looks unlikely to get another opportunity in the England side anytime soon.
England fans have longed for a genuine all-rounder in the Test side since the retirement of Andrew Flintoff in 2009, but there have been no worthy contenders and England settled for a model of six batsmen and Matt Prior at seven. This approach took England to successive Ashes victories and the number one Test ranking in 2011, but England haven’t had a quality number six in this period, and the danger of a four man bowling attack is that, if one of your bowlers has an off day, options are limited.
It’s unlikely that Stokes imagined making the Ashes squad when Woakes debuted at The Oval, let alone playing in the second Test. However, the selectors have always admired him and monitored his progress closely. He already has 10 ODI caps and starred in the U19 World Cup in 2009, hitting a century against India.
It hasn’t always been an easy road for the burly all-rounder, though. He was sent home from the England Lions tour of Australia in early 2013 for two breaches of discipline and there were fears that his undoubted talent could be going to waste. Fortunately, the incident proved a turning point for Stokes who would go on to help unfancied Durham to their third County Championship title in five years, taking 42 wickets in the process. He would also take his first five wicket haul in international cricket during the ODI against Australia at Hampshire in September.
Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, Stokes was always expected to follow a sporting path with his father, Ged, a former rugby league player who represented his country and later went into coaching. Indeed it was this coaching career that brought Ged and his family to England when Ben was 12. Stokes quickly joined the Durham academy system and went on to sign a two year contract with the county in 2009, making a number of List A appearances and capturing the run-machine, Mark Ramprakash as his first wicket, but it was not until 2010 that he got a regular run in the Championship side, averaging over 46 with the bat in his first full season.
Although Stokes’s career has continued on a mostly upward trajectory, his batting hasn’t quite reached the heights of his first two seasons, but his bowling has continued to improve. During Durham’s title winning season he regularly took key wickets and many Durham fans feel he has a golden arm and he can come on, whatever the situation, and make something happen.
Whether he is ready for Test cricket cannot be judged in the wreckage of the start to England’s Ashes campaign, but his selection for the second Test was a bold and brave one by England. They have, in him, potentially the most exciting all-rounder since Flintoff. While no 22 year old is the finished article, in the long run this could be a gamble that pays off. The number six slot has troubled England for some time and now it could be filled by one of the country’s most exciting talents. It is now up to England, and Stokes, to prove the selection right.
By Niki Williams