Ben Stokes has long been thought of as key to England’s chances of success during the upcoming Ashes tour of Australia, and that view has only hardened since his place was put in jeopardy by his arrest.
Speculation over Stokes’s future intensified on Thursday when England suspended him from international matches until further notice after the publication of a video apparently showing him fighting outside a Bristol nightclub.
The Test vice-captain was included in England’s Ashes squad announced this week, despite his arrest on suspicion of causing actual bodily harm in the early hours of Monday, after an incident which left him with an injured hand.
The unseemly turn of events has left England in a quandary over Stokes, whose ability with both bat and ball makes him that most highly prized of cricketers — a genuine all-rounder.
That was true in more ways than one when this year saw Stokes became the Indian Premier League’s most expensive foreign player when he was signed by the Rising Pune Supergiant for £1.7 million ($2.2 million).
He made good on the price-tag by scoring 316 runs at a strike rate of 142.98 and taking 12 wickets at an economy rate of 7.18 in the Twenty20 event.
Stokes’s on-field failures can be as great as his successes — the prime example being when Carlos Brathwaite hit him for four successive sixes to snatch a stunning win for West Indies in the last over of the 2016 World Twenty20 final.
But Stokes, unlike many other players, has forged a successful career in all three international formats and often demonstrates more guile than is suggested by his all-action approach.
Nevertheless, his capacity to score quickly, which excites crowds and frustrates opponents in equal measure, is the most eye-catching of a range of talents that also include excellent close-catching.
The 2015 Lord’s Test against his native New Zealand — the 26-year-old was born in Christchurch but moved to England with his family as a boy — saw his innings of 92 and 101 help England regain the initiative, with Stokes taking three wickets as well.
Hiss left-handed batting also yielded a remarkable Test innings of 258 from just 198 balls against South Africa in Cape Town in 2016.
Stokes can make an impact with the ball too, as he showed while taking six for 36 in the second innings of England’s Ashes-clinching victory against Australia at Trent Bridge two years ago.
He has also thrived in a hostile cricket environment, making his maiden Test century against Australia in Perth during the 2013/14 Ashes series where England suffered a humiliating 5-0 defeat.
Stokes’s fiery temperament was laid bare when he punched a locker and broke a bone in his right hand after a dismissal in 2014, forcing him to miss that year’s World Twenty20 in Bangladesh.
His judgement in nightclubbing this week, during an ODI series against West Indies, may also be questionable but former Australia captain Ian Chappell was in no doubt of his value to the England side.
“Stokes is two things — he’s a class above the rest, and he’s such a match-winner that he drags the team along with him,” Chappell told the Wide World of Sports.
“If he gets things right and plays really well, he’s the sort of player who can lift the rest of the team. “Without him they (England) are no chance (to win the Ashes),” he added.
That helps explain why Stokes was made vice-captain to Test skipper Joe Root, with England coach Trevor Bayliss — himself an Australian — saying he was “a leader within this group when it comes to cricket”.
“If England must do without him, they will be badly damaged before a ball has been bowled (in Australia),” former England captain Michael Atherton wrote in The Times.
In one sense England need Stokes more than he needs them, as he is among the first generation who can play Twenty20 tournaments rather than Tests to enjoy a lucrative career.
But no one should doubt his pride in playing for England, or the hurt he’ll feel if he does indeed miss the Ashes.