Saturday 8 August 2015

Stokes proves 'folk hero' credentials

In the absence of James Anderson and with the attack being blunted it was England's allrounder who brought the urn within reach

#PoliteEnquiries: Is Stokes the new new new Botham?

It is a painful coincidence that, just as England should be - barring a miracle - clinching the Investec Ashes on Saturday, the Premier League football season will be starting once more.

That brief window in the year, between football seasons, Olympic games, European and World Championships, will shut and the breath of oxygen cricket enjoys will be cut off once more. Just as the English game has something to celebrate and relish, it will go back to existing in its own little bubble. However much it has to shout about, it will not be heard above the din created by football.

With so little cricket - and no live cricket - on free to air TV, it will prove desperately hard for the ECB to fulfil one of the aims of its recent planning strategy. Earlier this year, it emerged that the ECB identified the need for the game to create "folk heroes" to help it regain relevance and popularity with the mass market.

That is a shame for, as England celebrate their success, they can also look forward with excitement. For while the 2013 Ashes was won by a team at the end of its life cycle, this success comes with a team at the start of one. A team that is committed to playing attractive cricket, engaging with the public and helping make the sport relevant again.

And, while there are several exciting, young players in this side - Joe Root, at 24, stands out - there is an obvious potential "folk hero" in Ben Stokes.

Stokes is, give or take, the cricketer that just about every young player wants to be when they first start to play the game. He bats with belligerence, he bowls with pace and his fielding is so good, you wonder if he could catch Lord Lucan.

He has character, too. In an age when many sportsmen appear - in front of the media, at least - homogenised and sterile, Stokes remains just a little bit, and in the very best way, untamed. Any Australian who thought he might be intimidated by trash talk or bouncers was soon put right when Stokes, in his second Test, scored a maiden century in Perth when all about him fell away.

Stokes bowled beautifully, swinging the ball a prodigious distance, while also showing admirable control, stamina and pace

"We did see that," Stokes said with a chuckle, when asked about Steven Smith's pre-series comment about England "not getting close" to Australia. "But hopefully we're going to win the Ashes tomorrow." His unspoken message was simple: talk is cheap.

He has, at times, seemed a bit daft. There was the incident where he punched a locker in Barbados, the time he was sent home from a Lions tour for embracing the nightlife a little too enthusiastically, and a couple of times when bowlers have provoked him into some unwise strokes.

So he has needed to grow up, but not change. For it is Stokes' fearlessness that renders him special. It is his love for the heat of battle and his desire to be involved when others might go missing.

England have had many cautious, percentage cricketers. They have had many players who put the ball in good areas, bat with patience and field tidily. And that is just fine. They are useful skills.

But Stokes is priceless. And he is the other sort. He is the sort that will disregard caution, relish the fight and, on his day, turn games in a session with bat or ball. And if it goes spectacularly wrong sometimes - and it will - it is a price worth paying as he will unsettle opponents and, given exposure, inspire another generation of supporters to the game in much the manner that Ian Botham once did. It would be folly to try and change him. England have a gem. It would be wretched if the schedule or the media or the expectation changed him.

He appears to relish responsibility. Since he was promoted to the No. 6 position, at the start of the summer, he has averaged 41.40 (despite just five runs in his last three innings) with one match-defining century (against New Zealand) and three other half-centuries. His strike rate of 77.52 might have been deemed decent in limited-overs cricket not so long ago; now it helps demoralise opposition in Tests and speed games away from them. In the months before that, after the end of the Ashes in Australia and when he batted at No. 7 or lower, he averaged just 8.66.

Similarly, here, he rose to the challenge with the ball. With James Anderson absent and both Mark Wood and Steven Finn lacking rhythm, England needed Stokes to deliver. By the time he was thrown the ball, the Australia opening pair had posted 50 and the attack, with Moeen Ali again struggling, was starting to look thin. The absence of Anderson was, for the first time in the game, starting to hurt.

But Stokes bowled beautifully. Swinging the ball a prodigious distance, he also showed admirable control - conceding just over two an over despite an attacking field of four slips and a gully - impressive stamina - his first spell last for 11 overs - and decent pace, as he reached 89.9 mph at his peak. At one stage, he claimed three wickets in 13 balls - three of Australia's top four - and two balls later, took a sharp, low catch at short cover-point to account for Smith.

While his stock ball is an inswinger that evokes faint memories of Imran Khan - such a delivery accounted for Peter Nevill, leaving one that swung sharply to trap him in front of middle - he also has the ability, on a good day, to move the ball away from the right-hander, thereby creating confusion and uncertainty in the batsman's mind.

It is probably relevant, though, that four of his victims were left-handers. While two, Shaun Marsh and Chris Rogers, were drawn into playing at balls leaving them, Mitchell Johnson was simply unfortunate to receive a straight one that demanded a stroke and swung late enough to take the edge.

Perhaps Stokes' strength, and the extra pace that provides, earned the wicket of David Warner. Attempting a short-arm pull, he seemed hurried and could only manage a top edge.

His figures do not flatter him. While his bowling average in the series was nudging 100 before this Test, he has suffered more than most from dropped chances this summer - Ian Bell has now dropped four catches off Stokes in the slips - and bowled some selfless spells in tough conditions in the Caribbean so Anderson and Broad could be spared. This haul might be regarded as overdue reward for his work. He already has only one fewer five-wicket haul in Test cricket than Andrew Flintoff.

"I've always been able to swing the ball," Stokes said. "But I've never had the chance to bowl for England when the conditions are so in favour of swing. I play my cricket at Durham, where the ball swings, so I felt comfortable. It was good to get a bit more responsibility, really."

It was fitting that he should provide such a performance in the match that seals the Ashes, too. England's balance - their ability to bat down to No. 8 and field a five-man attack - might well be seen as the difference between the team. Stokes has played a huge role in providing that.

Good allrounders change everything. It was Flintoff's period of excellence that helped Michael Vaughan lead England to the Ashes in 2005. And it was Botham's excellence that helped cement Mike Brearley's reputation as one of the great captains. Alastair Cook now has a player that balances his side and can excel in all disciplines. He has a game-changer.

If England could only find a way to get Stokes on to more TV screens, he could make a difference far beyond defining the result of matches.

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