Stokes the man for this and any century
It is a hard thing to admit but Ben Stokes might be just about my favourite England cricketer.
He doesn’t have the mix of slapstick humour that Phil Tufnell and Devon Malcolm often brought to the game.
Neither could hold a bat, usually fielded as though their boots were tied together but sometimes, just occasionally, balanced yin and yang sufficiently to bring the most exquisite chemistry to the bowling crease.
David Gower and Ian Bell’s class with the bat made them eminently watchable, Mark Butcher’s mix of resolve, timing and self-deprecation helped him stand out in an era when England were mostly plagued by self-inflicted wounds while Michael Vaughan was not only excellent to deal with professionally but had the character and will to take the game up to Australian teams on top more often than not.
And KP? Well, it was difficult to actually like KP as a person but there was something about his audacious nature that made him impossible to ignore. (I first met KP on a KwaZulu Natal pre-season tour of WA in September 2000. He got five wickets, mostly long hops caught on the boundary, in a warm-up game against a WA second XI at Lilac Hill, complained to me during the next leg in Broome that his career-best feat had not been mentioned in The West Australian’s brief match report and ended an increasingly lively exchange with the memorable promise: “You will not forget the name Kevin Pietersen.” I did, for a while at least, but certainly not after he made his debut during the 2005 Ashes.)
Andrew Flintoff was another favourite, mostly because of the breath-taking performances he brought at the top of his game but partly because he bought me a breakfast G&T in Port Elizabeth during the 2003 World Cup. I was on my way to the dining room, he was in the hotel bar after being ejected from a sponsor’s function for drinking too many G&Ts with his weeties, and was looking for a friend to share his woes.
The arrival of a bristling Alec Stewart soon afterwards called early stumps on the budding heart-to-heart but I did think more favourably of Freddy during his rollercoaster ride over the next few years.
So why is Stokes, the tattooed, New Zealand-born ranga who has broken Australian hearts a few times, such a favourite?
He is all heart, for a start, and has a feel for the big moments in games like few players in recent or any times.
Shane Warne had that trait, Adam Gilchrist too, and while Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar could sometimes bend the game to their wills, they did it with such sublime talent that it was difficult to consider them operating on a mortal level.
That is the key to Stokes.
He often looks uncomfortable, frequently appears out of gas but just finds a way to keep going.
And he makes the right decision with almost superhuman accuracy during the most tense moments of the biggest matches.
He played and missed six times during his match-winning innings in the T20 World Cup the other night but rather than be rattled by the error of judgment or inability to get bat on ball, simply got back to business.
His big match temperament is the equal of any England player I have seen. Just about any cricketer, actually.
It is why he is in the middle so often when blockbuster matches are decided.
Take the Ashes Test at Headingly in 2019 when his extraordinary 135 not out sealed the match for England or his efforts in the dying moments in the most recent 50 and 20 over World Cup finals.
Stokes grasps the nettle for a living and relishes every moment of the contest. He is an irrepressible player who simply refuses to surrender to the opposition, the conditions, the match position or any distractions in his own make-up.
He took on the responsibility of opening the bowling in the tournament and combined it so effectively with his top order batting that the final marked just the second time in T20 history that a No.4 produced a half-century and claimed at least one wicket with the new ball.
Stokes is a phenomenal cricketer and remarkable character.
He almost seems too good to be true but he is a Kiwi, after all, and maybe some of New Zealand’s recent derring-do under Brendon McCullum and Kane Williamson is also part of his genetic make-up.