The patient is sickly. England’s flaccid Test team would want Ben Stokes to be the alchemist.
To start with, Stokes’s appointment as England’s Test captain is good news for the game’s purest format. Virat Kohli as India captain was a great ambassador for Test cricket, someone who inspired the new-age Indian cricketers to fall in love with the long-form. Kohli is done with captaining in international cricket and it’s time for Stokes to pick up the baton. Like Kohli, he is larger than life, a global star. Stokes has the charisma and skill-set to embolden Test cricket. As for England, his inspirational presence can take the team out of the rut.
But there’s a catch. Celebrity captains traditionally haven’t sat well with English cricket – from Wally Hammond to Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen. Stokes can buck the trend. He is the only England cricketer who can change the course of a match both with bat and ball. He is a good tactical mind and unlike Pietersen, he is immensely popular in the dressing room. When Joe Root belatedly stepped down as England Test captain, Stokes became a shoo-in.
He was Root’s deputy and when he did the job as a stop-gap skipper, Stokes’s captaincy was impressive. “Stokes has the fire in his belly and the positive approach to be successful. However, that alone doesn’t guarantee success,” former Australia captain Ian Chappell wrote in his ESPNcricinfo column last month. Stokes, in fact, has an unenviable job. England’s Test performance over the last one year has been pretty poor. They conceded a 2-1 lead in the home series against India, got battered in the Ashes Down Under and managed to lose a Test series in the West Indies as well. Does English cricket have adequate long-form talent for a course correction?
A captain is only as good as his team and Stokes cannot transform an average side into world-beaters overnight. Do England have an opener beyond Zak Crawley, Rory Burns, Dom Sibley and Haseeb Hameed who can inspire confidence against quality pace upfront? Who would bat around Root and Stokes in the middle-order? Jos Buttler, wooing the Indian fans with his merry-hitting in the IPL at the moment, should have cemented his place in the England Test team. It’s a shame that he has failed to do it, notwithstanding a lorry-load of talent in his possession. It’s about the mind-set, which turns a free-flowing limited-overs power-hitter into a Test imposter. Does Buttler have a Test future under Stokes, the two like-minded cricketers?
Then, there’s the curious case of Liam Livingstone, arguably the finest England batting talent post Root and Stokes, whom the country’s cricket hierarchy doesn’t consider good enough for Tests. “It’s about time that England backed the talent of Liam Livingstone. He is so free-spirited and I love the way that he is eager to entertain. He wants to give it a smack so he just does, no holding back. It’s awesome to watch. There aren’t many better batters than him in England, I tell you,” Pietersen wrote in his Betway blog.
As a player, Stokes revels in playing bold and fearless cricket. As a captain also, he needs to embrace boldness. Under Root, the England Test team was going backwards. The likes of Livingstone and Harry Brook should be the way forward.
What about bowling? No disrespect to James Anderson, a legend in his own right, who still can make the ball talk in favourable conditions. But reverting to a 39-year-old, and 35-year-old Stuart Broad, suggests that the cupboard is bare. In his first meeting with the England men’s team managing director Rob Key, Stokes reportedly demanded the return of Anderson and Broad to the Test fold, after the duo were dropped for the Caribbean tour. As a captain, he is entitled to make demands which he thinks would be in the best interest of his team. That Anderson and Broad are still in demand doesn’t, however, hold English cricket in good stead. Imagine Indian or Australian cricket recalling a 40-year-old fast bowler as a rescue act… It won’t happen. As regards to spin bowling, if Jack Leach is your No. 1 Test spinner, then you are in trouble.
Stokes’s appointment is the coramine push that the England Test team needed following the Ashes debacle and the Caribbean disappointment. His whirlwind return to County cricket – an 88-ball 161, including 17 sixes, for Durham against Worcestershire – provided further embellishment. To offer a cynical view, though, a first-class side conceding so many sixes against a batsman attests poor bowling, which doesn’t augur well for the championship. The falling standards of County cricket, caught in the quagmire of alleged apathy, is said to be a reason for the paucity of quality long-form talent in English cricket. Stokes’s real test will begin in less than a month, with the World Test champions New Zealand visiting Lord’s on June 2.