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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Ben Stokes' influence in England Test side looks set to keep increasing

Paul Radley looks at the increasing influence the Durham allrounder is having within the Test side.

Ben Stokes scored a first innings century and took three match wickets during England's victory over South Africa at The Oval. Andrew Couldridge / Reuters
Ben Stokes scored a first innings century and took three match wickets during England's victory over South Africa at The Oval. Andrew Couldridge / Reuters

Back in 2005, with English cricket newly-emboldened by a historic Ashes victory inspired by Andrew Flintoff, a team of young teenaged cricketers arrived in the UAE on tour from the UK’s north.

Geoff Cook, the coach of the Durham age-group side, sat down beside the boundary at Sharjah Cricket Stadium and said: “Watch out for this kid – he plays just like Flintoff.”

The resemblance was uncanny. Ben Stokes, the player Cook had pointed out, scored 46 for Durham’s under-14s that evening, as they won the Nissan Gulf Cup in front of nobody, bar a few of their parents who had made the trip.

Twelve years on, his international renown is a match for that of Flintoff, while his returns on the field are already exceeding those of his illustrious forebear.

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Stokes reached career highs in both batting and bowling in the ICC player rankings this week, after England took a 2-1 lead in their series against South Africa.

He moved up 12 places to joint-25th for batsmen with scores of 112 and 31, and went to 19th in the list for bowlers with three wickets in the match. He also moved above South Africa’s Vernon Philander to fifth in the allrounder standings.

Those rankings, as fair an achievement as they are, hardly feel like they cover Stokes’ influence. If there was a charisma quotient factored in, surely he would figure higher.

This is the player on whom Rising Pune Supergiant lavished a king’s ransom at the Indian Premier League earlier this year, based perhaps as much on personality as performance. A player about whom Steve Smith, his Ashes rival yet eventual captain at Pune, told the franchise owners: “do what you have to do to get him.”

Beyond white-ball cricket, Stokes’ importance to an England Test side battling against inconsistency is growing ever larger, too.

Alastair Cook, whose vital innings of 88 in the first innings was subsequently overshadowed by Stokes’ century at The Oval, suggested players start to show their best once they have played 30 Test matches or more.

Cook himself is one of three players in the current England XI to have played more than 100 Tests – James Anderson and Stuart Broad the others, while three – Tom Westley, Dawid Malan and Toby Roland-Jones – are just starting out.

Stokes is 35 matches into his career now, and his curve of productivity is on a sharp incline. Since the start of 2016, he has been averaging 43.15 with the bat, including a best of 258, and 27.32 with the bat. If the best is yet to come, as Alastair Cook might have been intimating, then England are lucky.

His overall career averages have now almost reached that barometer of an allrounder’s merits, namely for the batting average to be higher than the bowling one. The difference for Stokes on that differential is down to -0.27, as he scores his runs at 34.19 and takes his wickets at 34.46.

That compares favourably with Flintoff, who averaged 31.77 with the bat over the course of his 79 Tests, and 32.78 with the ball.

When it comes to English allrounders, those who have been since are often benchmarked against Ian Botham. His differential between batting and bowling averages was positive by 5.14. So Stokes has some work still to do to match that.

Comparisons might be odious, especially with players from the past, but Stokes is certainly going the right way about measuring up.