Ben Stokes: How the rebel in love with Test cricket is transforming it


If Ben Stokes had walked away from cricket as he deliberated after his father’s death in 2020, perhaps Bazball would have semi-existed as a dreamy hypothesis in the backyard of Brendon McCullum’s rumination. For no cricketer in England had in their gaze embodies the philosophy, with all its magic and madness, strengths and flaws, genius and flakiness, as much as Stokes does. It could be a method of playing cricket forged and formulated in the ideals of McCullum, but for the ideas to manifest, to assume a human form, he required Stokes.

It’s the throbbing soul of all path-breaking ideologies. Ideas cannot fulfill on its own, it needs to find the right men at the right time and place. Douglas Jardine would not have embraced the Bodyline without Harold Larwood, the coal-miner’s son from Nottingham who would rattle Donald Bradman and mates with his frightening pace. Clive Lloyd would not have installed the pace quartet, had West Indies not been gifted with supreme quicks. His teams could not have terrorized batters with dibbly-dobbly-wibbly-wobbly medium pacers. A sporting philosophy is often a product of multiple factors falling in place, and not the flicking of a magic switch.

Like Rinus Michels needed Johan Cruyff for Total Football to tick, like Pep Guardiola required Xavi and Iniesta for tiki taka to conquer the world, McCullum required Stokes as the apostle to spread his gospel. It’s not that he is England’s greatest player of his generation; there is Joe Root, the finest batsman of his generation and arguably the greatest his country had ever produced; there’s James Anderson and Stuart Broad, the third and fifth highest wicket-takers in the longest format, endowed with power and personality.

Ben Stokes and Pat Cummins England’s Ben Stokes with Australia’s Pat Cummins after Australia win the first test. (Reuters)

But Stokes is different; not that he is necessarily better. There is something intangible about him that inspires those around him. He could influence the men around him, make them dazzle in his own light. Like Jack Leach in that epic last-wicket partnership in Headingley; he could create colossus from discards, like Jonny Bairstow; he could coax the men he wants out of retirements, as Moeen Ali reciprocated his call to be part of the Ashes; Joe Root has taken his batsmanship to a few notches higher. Of all the batsmen, it was Root who unfurled the Bazball shots under pressure in the first Test, reverse-lapping and charging.

Stokes could conquer fate too, he could bend fate to perform unusual tricks, like the ricocheted six in the 2019 World Cup final; he could twists destines. Sometimes, Stokes makes moments, sometimes moments make Stoke.

No one symbolizes the systematic carefreeness of Bazball as Stokes either. At the heart of McCullum, Bazball and Stokes is the schoolboy-like thrill of playing the game. Playing the game for the plain joy it derives them, uncomplicated and unstained by greed and money. Definitely, they play to win (as Stokes said how every “loss hurts”) but winning seems almost secondary to the pure fun they get from turning up and playing the game. There is a child-like innocence about how they play, unshackled from the clutches of cynicism and negativity. And for all the bravado, there is no arrogance. Like Steve Waugh’s Invincibles without the toxic machismo. The fans have caught that vibe, and are turning evangelists.

It’s as though the essence of their game is to spread a smile on the face of the viewers, to bat and bowl, keep and field with a smile. “I’m more a ‘let’s crack on, lads’, lead-by-example guy. But I am clear on what we’re trying to do here,” Stokes wrote about his captaincy in Players’ Tribune. McCullum would elaborate further: “He’s been superb, his messaging has been very consistent and very articulate as well. He doesn’t speak all the time but when he does speak, it’s bang on.”

That the men around him enjoy his leadership manifests in their joie de vivre. You could hear the chuckles and the guffaws, the giggles and chatter. They are not delusional in thinking that they could hunt down any target, or win a march from any adverse situation. Stokes has stripped the air of nervous seriousness in the dressing rooms.

Ben Stokes England’s Ben Stokes reacts during day five of the first Ashes Test cricket match, at Edgbaston, Birmingham, England. (AP)

He is perhaps the least sober of England captains in recent times. Joe Root’s silence was often a sign of nervousness; Andrew Strauss always walked with a battered look on his face; Kevin Pietersen wore false bravado, Nasser Hussain faux-aggression, Michael Vaughan a bit aloof.

This is not to say he is faultless. Oftentimes, there seems a blind subconscious commitment to reject everything that is orthodox. They ignored the stat of Usman Khawaja being weaker against over-the-wickets attack and kept taking it across despite lack of results. Like the subcontinental-style field, with two catching covers and catching mid-wickets, he set to Usman Khawaja before he reached hundred. Khawaja nullified the threat by defending with soft hands. During his stand with Alex Carey, Stokes over-attacked the latter. Before that he furnished ample boundary-scoring chances to Travis Head. There was hardly any cover on the ropes, and he persisted with Moeen Ali for far too long. His seven overs after the break leaked 45, of which 38 came via boundaries. It’s a passage where the conventional dry-an-end-up ploy would have frustrated the Australian batters. Similarly, he over-lingered with Joe Root in the last-innings chase when the new ball was due. He ended up bleeding runs. He chose not to avail the services of the most successful fast bowler in the format’s history as well.

It’s the flip-side of nonconformity. But Stokes could rattle out the instances where some of his radical ploys have worked in the Test. Like the Brumbrella field that melted the patience of Khawaja, or the short-ball barrage in the first innings to whip away the tail-enders. Or bringing himself on to rip out Khawaja during the chase.

By his own admission, he has lost his bowling vim. Frequent injuries have wearied his shoulders and knees. The pace has reduced—once upon a time he used to hit early 140 kph. The balls have lost its snap and bite—once upon a time he was the workhorse third seamer, plugging away endlessly, up the slope, against the wind, bustling like a local bus stacked with passengers, ensuring the Rolls Royce-like Anderson and Broad got adequate time to refuel. There was even a sense of un-fulfillment, that he never blossomed into the bowler he was touted to be, never scaled to helm of all-rounders’ peak, which his potential merited.

But he has the knack of producing moments. And so he did. There is always a brush of magic, a stray ray of light, a touch of the cosmic energy buzzing on his finger-tips. And so he delivered another moment. In just six balls.

Ashes, Ben Stokes England’s Ben Stokes, right, celebrates with team mates after bowling Australia’s Usman Khawaja during day five of the first Ashes Test cricket match, at Edgbaston, Birmingham. (AP)

The first two balls were length balls on leg-stump. Possibly a loosener or two, probably a pair of bait balls. Khawaja could attempt something outrageous, an airy flick or shove. He didn’t. So he reverted to good length on off-stump, or just outside. The Australian had been leaving such a ball all along the innings. Unlike Anderson or Broad, he need not have to fear for the ball bending back viciously to hit his pads or stumps. But Stokes gave him more time to react. Sometimes, too much time is a dangerous thing in cricket. Too many thoughts could cloud the clarity. So Stokes, slipped in a slow leg-cutter, with a curious three finger grip—the thumb, index and middle and ring finger all clustered together.

As the ball is released the index and middle finger work down the side of the ball so that the thumb passes round under the ball, generating spin on the ball. The technique is the same, only that the thumb is closer to the index finger than usual.

The ball landed almost in the same territory as the previous three had. Only that it was slower and lower. The ball grazed than pounded the surface. Khawaja shaped to tap the ball towards the cover, but instead cramped himself and ended up chopping the ball to the stumps.

Had England nailed the thriller, it would have been the game-changing moment. Instead, Stokes endured the agony of a skier slipping through his hands. Australia were 33 runs away when he shelled Nathan Lyon. Stokes could be a fallible man on the field too. Outside it, he had suffered clutching depression and once thought of relinquishing the game, endured panic attacks before games, as depicted poignantly in the documentary Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes. Best friend Stuart Broad even feared Stokes would never play cricket.

Two years after the dark space he wading through, he finds himself leading England forward with a thrillingly dopamine-spraying brand of cricket. It burnishes his halo even brighter. The man who came back from the brink, the man who picked the pieces of his scattered career and re-glued to make a beautiful portrait. He’s an outlier, a state school-educated England Test captain. He connects emotionally with the team and fans alike, make them experience his own experience.

His tactics would polarise the cricketing world, more so when they lose, but none would disagree that his team does not thrill. But for the tactical enterprise of Stokes and Co, at the hands of a more conventional captain, the game would have meandered into a dull, boring draw the audience would have forgotten even before the match was over. But Stokes’s England fills them with memories and moments, something defining and everlasting, a spectacle grander than a victory or defeat. And remember how bad England were in Test cricket before Stokes took over.

His perspectives are nuanced to see the bigger picture. He wrote in Players’ Tribune: “What’s at stake, and it’s bigger than just myself and my own ambitions on the field. It’s about inspiring the next generation of players. The landscape is changing. Cricket as a sport is evolving in a huge way. Faster than it ever has before. Formats like T20, The Hundred and ODIs are bringing money and opportunities for players that didn’t exist even 15 years ago. but the best way to keep Test cricket alive and at the pinnacle of the sport is to work harder to show players something that excites them and inspires them.”

He is not treading the trope of a cricket intellectual, but speaking with all the romanticism he feels about Test cricket but through the lens of a rebel. That in essence is his brand of cricket too: at the heart of it is romance, but coated with streaks of rebellion.


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