Ben Stokes: Looking For A New England

Gun allrounder Ben Stokes talks to Phil Walker about his role in England’s ODI team, clearing the ropes and hitting the Vegas strip. 

It’s best I make things clear straight up: I’m a fan. A big one. Have been for a while. Until he’s working in a Cumbrian bakery, or Hollywood, or wearing chinos on Sky, I won’t have it any other way. The boy’s special, and that’s that.

And it’s this unstinting faith in the galvanising granite-jawed geezerness of Ben Stokes that makes me toy with other outlandish thoughts. Specifically: if this boy (and he is, at 23, no more than that) is England’s No.7 in a one-day side routinely rubbished by the twin towers of a burnt-out press corps and a disappointed Twitterati, and if he’s the meat between a convincing middle-order and a bunch of rested and proven quicks who like what Australia has to offer them, then England, up against a whole other bunch of flawed and vulnerable cricket teams, can go ahead and do something drastic and peculiar in next year’s World Cup. There. I’ve said it.

I’ve interviewed Stokes quite a few times. It’s a laugh every single time. He’s much quicker and smarter than the perception. He’s an identifiably human sportsbloke who knows his game, trusts his mind, isn’t afraid to speak it, and who has an innate sense of his own power and potential popularity. One of the most fun games is listening in to those cogs whirring in his brain as he strives to say ‘the right thing’ when all he really wants to offer is the unvarnished truth as he sees it.

So, Benjamin, can England win the World Cup? “I’ve got to be honest. The conditions out there… the Ashes didn’t go very well! But the conditions out there will help our chances. The ball comes on nicely, the wickets are pretty fast, and generally we’re very good at facing quick bowling compared to spin… I’m not gonna sit here and lie and say we’re great players of spin.”

England’s flaws and foibles in one-day cricket are well documented. The stodginess up top, the captain’s limitations, the old-hat retrogressive approach that stifles the strokemakers in the middle etc… Yep, got it.

(There is the mildly inconvenient fact that since October 1, 2011 England’s net 10-over mandatory powerplay average is the highest of all Test nations, and that with the bat alone they’ve lost fewer wickets on average than any other side in those 10 overs while maintaining a comparatively competitive run-rate  – 45.9 to India’s 47.4, say. But you know, that’s enough stats for one day.)

England got beat 4-1 in Australia last time out. You may recall it came on the back of an Ashes series that might have gone better. Or if you’d rather, an Ashes series of unremitting misery punctuated only by a single innings of breathtaking courage and skill constructed on a Perth deathbed by a kid in his second Test match.

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“It was a very, very tough tour,” Stokes recalls. “Australia just kept on winning when it looked like we were gonna! That one-day series wasn’t as one-sided as 4-1 sounds.”

He’s right. England should have won the second match at Brisbane after posting 300 – Australia got it for nine – while the game they did win at Perth was something approaching a complete performance, which for a shattered bunch of cricketers waylaid by injury, defeat, and whisper it, infighting, was no mean feat.

After a horrorshow with the ball at Brisbane when he went at seven-an over, Stokes was man of the match at Perth, making 70 as England broke the 300-run barrier again, before chipping in with four wickets.

“To be fair, there was nothing reckless about that score at Perth. We got a good start [stodgy England were 87-0 off 12 overs when Cook departed] and then me and Belly batted together for quite a long time, going about things naturally, and once you’re in you get given those four balls to hit. And then when you’ve got Morgan and Jos [Buttler] coming in at the end, no one in the world would want to bowl to those guys.”

Buttler smacked 10 boundaries in 43 balls that day. In England’s new-look side, Stokes looks to have slotted in just behind him, and with Morgan and Root preceding them and Bopara and Moeen Ali on the scene too, that’s a seriously persuasive middle-order.

It’s essential for Stokes to know what he’s there for. “I’ve batted in so many different positions in not too many games, so the goal for me now is to try and get into the team, stay in it, and hold down a proper position. Rather than being told, ‘Here you go, you’re versatile so we can bat you anywhere’, I want to actually make a claim to an actual position. In the games against India [last summer] I batted at No.7 in every game I played, which I got used to, and which is better than not knowing at all, when it could be 3, 4, 5, 6, wherever.”

So, seven it is. Is he learning what the role entails? “Yeah, I had a chat to Mooresy [Peter Moores] before the series against India, and I said to him that this is quite unfamiliar for me, and he explained what he thought the No.7 role was, and once he’d explained it, things became a lot clearer.

“I’ve worked a lot recently on the hitting side of my game,” he adds in that cool way he has of filtering out the blah, “and that’ll be what I’m needed for straight away. Looking at the bigger picture, that’s where I’m gonna be.”

In short: go out and go big. Is he happy with that role? “Yeah, definitely.” You don’t want to bat higher up the order? “In the future, 100 per cent. I enjoyed batting four for Durham this year and getting the chance to get in and build an innings, and then having a bit of fun, as they say. But for England that doesn’t look very likely just at the minute. We’ve got Root, Bell and Morgan in there and they’re all quality players who have proved themselves, so to get up in one of those spots is gonna be very tough.”

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Durham is Stokes’ club. Born in New Zealand, his rugby league-playing father decamped the family to Cumbria when Stokes was 11. From there – via startling schoolboy feats and a brilliant 88-ball hundred for England under 19s against India at the 2010 Under 19s World Cup – it was a seamless transition into first-class cricket.

He’s already won two Championships with the club, and last season was the defining figure in Durham’s march to the 50-over title. His 113-ball 164 in the semi-final against Notts – from No.5 – was the kind of terrifyingly pure assault of which he’s capable.

Between that maiden Test hundred against Mitchell Johnson and the demolition of Notts, the Stokes story spluttered. First he missed England’s World T20 campaign after smashing up a locker in Australia and busting his hand; then, after returning to the team for the Investec Test series against India and in stinking form with the bat, he recorded a pair at Lord’s, including a horribly botched hook shot on the final day that came to typify England’s struggles against the short stuff.

Out of form, he was rightly dropped, but while that Lord’s match was ugly for him and for others, a mistimed hook in a doomed run chase is unworthy of our memory against all those ones he nailed on that Perth death trap.

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Less than a year since his Test debut, Stokes has already seen a lot in that dressing room. Has he, you know, read the book? “KP’s? If it was a picture book I might have read it, but nah, I didn’t go anywhere near it.”

You must be curious though? “Aye definitely, there is curiosity because I wasn’t involved in anything that went on, and I still don’t know if it actually did! I don’t know if it was just said to go in his book. There’s a lot of things that have been said, but from our point of view we’ve got a lot of important cricket games coming up, and everyone involved with England just needs to focus on what’s ahead.”

That line may be one of Stokes’ few nods to party lines and all the rest of it, but it still carries the ring of truth. He’s front and centre of a new kind of picture for English cricket. Emerging from the rubble of last winter is a coterie of kids with something about them. And something of Vegas too.

Now we’re talking. Last month Stokes, Ballance, Root, Hales and Dernbach went to some desert in Nevada together. Highs and lows, Mr. Stokes? “Lows? Waking up in the morning – probably late afternoon – and trying to get your head around the thought of another ridiculous night. And the other low was leaving. Everything else about the place was the high. It’s a completely different world.”

Get rinsed at the blackjack tables? “Nah, I only gambled twice. I thought I was gonna gamble a lot more with the casino being right there, but I still had one win which paid for one night.”

Take in any shows? Manilow, Streisand, Jones? “Nah. Gary wouldn’t stop talking about the Blue Men, or something like that? But then he’s very sarcastic so I don’t know if he was serious or not.”

Is Hales, that other wild card of emergent England, a bit of a playboy? “That lad could never be a playboy.” So who is then? “Rooty’s got such a baby-cutesy persona that I reckon he gets away with it. I wouldn’t call him a playboy but I reckon he gets away with it. Nobody wants to see him in that light…”

There it is then. Ben Stokes confirms once and for all that being a playboy and a future England captain need not be mutually exclusive. You’d better watch this boy. He’s got the lot.

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