What does it mean for the Three Lions under the infallible Big Ben?

For a nation which invented the game, World Cup glory had eluded England for far too long. The country was producing cricketing greats every year, but it wasn’t translating into ICC success. 2015 saw an ignominious exit from the World Cup, and an immediate revamp was called for. Irishman Eoin Morgan took charge of a new-look England side, with swashbuckling openers in Jason Roy and Alex Hales, a belligerent middle order in Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, and skipper Morgan himself, and a pace battery led by the racy Jofra Archer.

But no team is complete without a multi-dimensional all-rounder. Ravindra Jadeja of India and Andre Russell and Kieron Pollard of West Indies are prime examples of such players who win matches for their team whether with bat or ball or both or in the field. A tall red-headed man of Kiwi origin stepped up to the plate for England. Bowling right-arm medium pace, and a gun fielder, Benjamin Andrew Stokes could bat anywhere in the batting order and bowl at any stage of the innings. Morgan saw in the left-handed batter early glimpses of what the world would see a few years later.

Stokes hit his stride under captain Morgan’s aggressive leadership, pillaging opponent bowlers with flamboyant stroke-play and picking crucial wickets in every other match. His ODI numbers got a shot in the arm in 2016, with his average shooting up to 49.00 from around 29, and he followed it up with averages of 61.60, 44.71, 59.91, and 37.80 in succeeding years. His BASRA – Batting Average and Strike Rate, largely touted to be a great indicator of batting prowess – hovered around 150 throughout this period. Consistent returns in ODIs saw him lift his T20 scores, too, as he batted at a decent strike rate and kept taking wickets at regular intervals.

Ben Stokes didn’t quite reach the supernal level he is at now, however, before the 2018-19 phase. An IPL contract with the Rajasthan Royals increased his stock overnight, as his consistent performances and electric fielding led him to be tagged as ‘Superman’. A bit of why he was called so was reflected in his Test performances, guiding England to a 2-2 draw in the 2019 Ashes with impactful performances with both bat and ball. In the third match of the series, a record fourth-innings target of 359 was chased down by England, with a wicket to spare, as Stokes took Australia to the sword with a marathon unbeaten 135-run innings. He smashed 11 fours and eight sixes in a 219-ball effort, which saw him share a 76-run last-wicket partnership with Jack Leach, who scored a run off twelve balls while playing second fiddle.

Image Credits: hindustantimes.com

Stokes’ innings were widely acclaimed by several greats as the ‘best Test innings in the Ashes’. The 135* had followed a 115* in the previous Test, a 50 in the first, and a 67 in the last. His consistent efforts with the bat had him on the radar for a leadership role for quite along. Dwindling returns in terms of Test victories from after 2020 under the leadership of otherwise accomplished batsman, Joe Root, saw a change in the whole cricketing set-up in England. Rob Key was appointed as the new managing director for England in 2022, and he took very little time replacing Root as Test captain and anointed Stokes as the next skipper.

The move was met with a mixed response from the cricketing fraternity. Many thought that while Stokes displayed a Kohli-like brand of controlled aggression on the field and reaped results, too, it wouldn’t necessarily translate into sound captaincy. Stokes was largely untested in this regard, and it is all too well known that Test captaincy is a whole new animal to be dealt with, something no form of limited-overs captaincy can prepare someone for. Others believe that the flamboyant middle-order all-rounder can prove to be able to be someone to lead from the front with his consistent, weighty performances.

Stokes announced his foray into captaincy with a 64-ball ton on Friday, 6th May 2022, for his countryside Durham, his first innings since the captaincy announcement. He slammed as many as 34 runs in an over in the knock and sent a clear message to critics that the captaincy tag in overseas cricket would not be something that he would allow to be weighed down with.

While a county performance isn’t enough to go by on to state international form, his clear stroke-making would ease many frayed nerves in the England management camp. What the Kiwi can bring to the table for the English while leading them remains to be seen, but what lies ahead – a Test series against his country of origin – sure makes for exciting perusal by lovers of the game.

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