Ben Stokes provides an ‘I was there’ innings to rescue England at Lord’s
It was an “I was there” innings, not a monumental one but memorable. Ben Stokes, in the space of two hours, cheered everyone up. Whether Stokes’s 92 against New Zealand will linger quite as long as Ted Dexter’s 70 against West Indies in 1963, , is debatable. Yet Stokes, alongside dependable old Joe Root, 24 years old going on 34, fashioned a recovery every bit as startling as Lord Ted all those years ago, and at a similar rate.
The bald facts: England were 30 for four when Stokes arrived at the crease; when he departed for 92 from 94 balls they were 191 for five, out of the woods, if not over the horizon.
The gremlins were at work before Stokes’s arrival. So this was the brave new world: 30 for four against a set of pace bowlers who were on the other side of the globe a few days ago. There was scope for the morass of despair to get stickier still albeit mixed up with a touch of village green farce when Moeen Ali, in his training gear, was sighted scuttling back to the pavilion from a Nursery end net as quickly as he decently could without suggesting too much panic. He needed to get his whites on sharpish.
Then we were transported from all the agonising at England’s recent malaise by their reaction to a dire situation. Wondrously the cricket took over. Despite the flurry of early wickets the batsmen opted to attack with vim. Root may have analysed that this was an appropriate response. Stokes seemed to be pursuing a simpler process. “See ball, hit ball” – where have I heard that before?
On another day with another batsman at the crease, those wide full-length deliveries might have been left suspiciously but Stokes reached out and clubbed them through the covers. There were a few half-volleys, forgivable blemishes since the ball had been swinging. Without exception Stokes stood tall and swung through the line, often sending the ball wide of mid-on fieldsmen, taken aback by the power of his stroke-play.
New Zealand tried some short balls. Again Stokes trusted his instincts and went after them. There was the occasional miscue, but more often than not he middled those hooks and pulls. One crack of the bat on ball when he was facing Matt Henry echoed around Lord’s so loudly that there was no need to look for the flight path. The ball was always destined for the Mound stand.
Together Root and Stokes added 161 in under 32 overs, which resuscitated the thorny issue of trust and the good officers of the ECB. Andrew Strauss told us not to expect a swashbuckling style of cricket from England from the very start. “That is going to take time,” he said last weekend. “It won’t come overnight. I can’t go into the dressing room next week and say: ‘Lads, you need to score at five an over.’ That’s ridiculous.”
Yet this pair raced along at more than five runs an over. Should we anticipate/demand an apology having been misled so blatantly by the ECB? Actually, on a sunny St John’s Wood afternoon with the packed stands enchanted by a red-blooded display from both sides, no one cared a jot about that. was captivating again – thanks to what was going on out on the field rather than at clandestine meetings in hidden hotel rooms (not filled with smoke, I’m sure).
In the end the magic faded for Stokes when he reached the 90s, which also coincided with the return of the off-spinner, Mark Craig, to the attack. It is possible for certain cricketers to think too much and Stokes may well be one of them. Until then he had batted brilliantly, just by trusting himself.
Now he had the dreaded temptation to review his situation. How to progress through the 90s? A second Test century was there for the taking. Moreover, against a spin bowler it is not just a question of instinct – there are decisions to make. There was plenty of room over mid-off and mid-on against Craig. At Chester-le-Street (not that Stokes has played there much recently) he would smack the spinner over the top without blinking.
But this was a Test at Lord’s, crammed to the rafters, with the prospect of that standing ovation upon reaching three figures. Perhaps a certain caginess was in order; perhaps not.
It may be that Stokes’s mind was suddenly cluttered; the upshot was he left a non-turning off-break which carried on down the slope, and he was bowled. What a waste. But he had already turned the game.