England all-rounder Ben Stokes has flown to New Zealand to be with his ailing father, and will miss the second Test with Pakistan starting in Southampton on Thursday (August 13). His absence will leave England vulnerable – and thankful for the cushion of the 1-0 lead with which they will start the game.
For his captain Joe Root, Ben Stokes is Mr Incredible. For his colleague Chris Woakes, a resourceful all-rounder himself, he’s the man with the golden arm. It’s a tribute to Stokes’s excellence that none of these epithets strike a hyperbolic note.
Over the last couple of years, Stokes has influenced more games than most cricketers manage in their entire career. Not since Jacques Kallis has cricket had a multi-talented performer of his calibre. This year he averages 58.27 with the bat and 18.73 with the ball – sparkling numbers that ensure even the epithet Mr Irreplaceable does not sound over the top.
What makes Ben Stokes Mr Irreplaceable?
Every team could boast of a near-indispensable: the Indians would say Virat Kohli, the Australians, Steve Smith, New Zealand, Kane Williamson. All greats of the game, but none of them matches the indispensability of Stokes. Stokes almost forces England to over-rely on him – he could get a spot in the side on any of the facets of his game.
As a batsman, he has averaged 50 since the start of 2019, the best for England in this time. His bowling has been hit by injuries, but he has still taken 41 wickets at 27, only slightly more expensive than each of James Anderson’s (26.88) – spectacular numbers for a third change bowler. As a fielder, he has the safest hands and the quickest throwing arm. And his sprint to long-on to save a boundary off his own bowling recently against the West Indies could win him the Mr Commitment award.
OK, let’s go one by one – first, his batting.
The ICC lists Stokes at No.7 in its Test batting rankings. Had the ranking been based on the value of runs rather than the size of the pile, Stokes would have been on top. At a difficult time for England’s batsmen, Stokes has been a pillar of consistency. The only other permanent fixture in the constantly changing line-up has been Root, who has averaged just 38 in the period.
Stokes has added more dimensions to his game — he can graft and grind, block and bludgeon. If the first innings against West Indies in the second Test was his longest (176 off 356 balls), his unbeaten 78 in the second dig came off just 57. He has averaged 58.27 in this time.
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And how good has his bowling been?
Stokes has lost some of his pace and swing due to recurring injuries, but none of his aggression and sting. He doesn’t pound the pitch as hard or swing the ball as often as he used to. But 2020 has been his best year as a bowler in terms of average (18.73), economy (2.83), and strike rate (39.6).
He has reinvented himself as a man for the odd jobs. When the ball is soft, nothing happening in the air or off the surface, and the batsmen are milking runs, Root turns to Stokes to be the run-stopper and partnership breaker. And seldom does he fail to deliver. In the second innings of the first Test against Pakistan, his four-over, two-wicket burst was instrumental in setting up the narrow victory.
In the series against the West Indies, his barrage of bouncers (91 in all) rattled the batsmen. Despite having bowled the fewest overs among the England bowlers who featured in at least two Tests (versus West Indies), he had the second-best average and strike-rate in the series.
How could England make up for his absence?
There is no like-for-like alternative. Without Stokes, England’s batting looks weaker and bowling bereft of an extra dimension, and a gap has appeared in the slip cordon.
England will probably recall top-order batsman Zak Crawley, and will be hoping that their batsmen are able to put in some extra effort. They will also need to find a bowler who is able to do, at least to an extent, all that Stokes does so effortlessly and consistently.
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