In many ways, the first ball of the 17th over of the 4th T20I epitomized Ben Stokes’ tour.
Having fought incredibly hard to put his side in a position of command, Stokes, with victory in sight, miscued a Shardul Thakur off-cutter and ended up hitting it straight to the hands of the fielder at long-off. His efforts, eventually, meant nothing as his teammates surrendered to hand India the victory.
It was not the first time in the tour he’d encountered such heartbreak. Twice in the fourth Test in Ahmedabad, Stokes went through similar emotions. First, with the bat, after racing to 55 on the very first day, the all-rounder, after threatening to play a decisive knock that could help England post a formidable total, perished tamely to hand India the initiative. Then, with the ball, after bowling a lung-busting spell that helped the visitors reduce India to 146/6, he watched Rishabh Pant, in real-time, transform into a literal god and slaughter England. On all three instances, including on Thursday, Stokes came agonizingly close to performing a miracle but, like a Power Ranger without a Morpher, found it impossible to complete the human to Superhuman transformation.
But while the failed conquest on Thursday would have stung Stokes - particularly because, unlike the fourth Test, he had the opportunity to single-handedly win the game for his side - there was a silver lining for England in the all-rounder’s failed heroics: they edged a step closer to figuring out what his ideal batting position in the side is.
For all his exploits with the bat in both ODI and Test cricket, Stokes, as ridiculous as it sounds, is still a cricketer finding his feet in T20 cricket. After a decade of playing the format, he still - both in franchise and international cricket - does not know if he is an opener, an all-rounder, a middle-order batsman or a finisher. And his numbers reflect the same. In 138 T20 matches, he averages an unremarkable 26.07 at a SR of 136.62, while these numbers plummet further in T20I cricket - a pretty hideous average of 20.38 to go along with no fifty-plus scores.
There are multiple reasons behind Stokes’ not-so-remarkable record in T20Is, one being him simply not having played enough international T20 cricket. England not prioritizing the shortest format in the past half a decade meant that they, more often than not, saw T20 games as an opportunity to rest Stokes, so up until the tour of South Africa in late 2020, he’d played just 27 games across 7 years. Since post the WT20 in 2016, in fact, he’s played just 16 matches, and 44% of those 16 have come in the past three months.
The second, and the more pertinent one, is that England simply have not utilized Stokes effectively in T20s, by deploying him down the order. Stokes’ natural ball-striking ability coupled with the fact that he is an all-rounder - not to forget England having a stacked top-order - has meant that the Three Lions have employed the southpaw as a finisher, but, as was evident from the 2nd T20I, where he ambled towards a 21-ball 24 when his side needed a late flourish, batting down the order is a role that simply does not suit Stokes. 52% of Stokes’s 27 innings in T20I cricket have come at No.6 or below and his numbers there are evidently shocking: he averages a mere 13.30 and has been dismissed under 20 a remarkable 58% of the times.
But while some may - rightly - argue that the numbers prove that Stokes might not fit into England’s best T20 XI, and that the side might be better off with a natural finisher like Moeen Ali, this simply is not true. As he showed in the 4th T20I in Ahmedabad, there is a place for Stokes in the English side, and it is higher up the order. On Thursday, Stokes, arguably, played the best T20I innings of his career. Walking in to bat at 66/3, with his side under the pump, the southpaw bided his time, measured the situation and launched an onslaught that was agonizingly close to taking the game away from the Indians. It was the only instance of Stokes registering a 200+ SR in a T20I innings where he’d faced more than 20 balls.
But while it was noticeable that England promoted Stokes to No.5, ahead of skipper Morgan, what really made the difference was when he walked in to bat. Stokes arrived at the crease as early as the 10th over, and this - unlike in the 2nd T20I where he came in the 15th over - meant that he had the time to assess the conditions and situations before cutting loose.
Unfortunately for both Stokes and England, though, time at the crease is a luxury that the southpaw has not been afforded in his T20I career. Incredibly, to date, the all-rounder has faced an average of just 11.51 balls per innings in his international T20 career. That this is largely down to him donning the finisher role is understandable, but for a batsman of Stokes’ calibre, this is a figure that’s criminally low.
With a minor - or major; however you’d like to see it - tweak, however, England can fix the situation and get the best out of Stokes the batsman. Taking a cue from his IPL career, and also his best T20I knocks for the country, England could turn Stokes into an indomitable force with the bat in T20 internationals by promoting him up the order.
Across four seasons in the IPL, Stokes has batted in five different positions. Yet, the 2020 season, where he pummeled 285 runs @ 40.71, by far his best ever with the bat, made it abundantly clear that, like Buttler, at the top of the order is where Stokes is at his destructive best in T20 cricket.
The numbers above show the daylight in Stokes’ effectiveness up the order, compared to when he bats down below. Now, it can be argued that the sample size for Stokes excelling in the top order is too low - he has batted at 4, 5 and 6 almost thrice as much as he has at 1, 2 and 3.
But a breakdown of his batting position in the IPL clearly indicates that the higher Stokes has batted, the more effective he has been. His average and runs scored at #4 and #5 are identical but there is a marked difference in the strike rate, indicating that he’s had his fair share of troubles trying to up the ante from the get-go.
In IPL 2017, Stokes’ most prolific season with the bat, the southpaw once again did considerably well at No.4 in comparison to No.5. The numbers, on the first look, seem identical, but Stokes’ numbers at #5 in IPL 2017 are inflated by the 103 he struck against Gujarat Lions. Barring that, he accumulated a meagre 78 runs in 6 innings at an average of 13 and a SR of 113.04.
But it is not just his IPL career. In his T20 international career, too, the higher Stokes has batted, the better he’s done. 74% of Stokes’ all T20I innings have come at either #5 or #6 and, as seen below, it is at #5 where he’s had almost all success. Notably, 100% of Stokes’ 30+ scores in T20I cricket have come when he’s batted at No.5 or above.
However, despite it being evidently clear that Stokes’ impact with the bat is considerably higher up the order, the predicament for England is actually fitting the southpaw up top, for there are all but no slots available. Buttler and Roy are locks as openers, Bairstow has been invincible in his new-found #4 role and at #3 is the number one batsman in the world. That pretty much leaves Stokes to just move one spot up to No.5, leapfrogging Morgan. Such a change, however, will still not enable England to extract everything out of Stokes the batsman.
So, how do England fit in Stokes up the order, then? It will be incredibly harsh, but the Three Lions will have no option but to axe Dawid Malan to accommodate Stokes at No.3. The move, apart from helping the team get the best out of Stokes, will also add a better balance to the side (more on this in a while).
Dissecting Malan’s flattering T20I numbers will need a different, detailed piece altogether - or you could just check out this video from the ever-so-cool Jarrod Kimber - but the bottom line is both him and Stokes are inherently similarly-wired T20 batsmen - they like to bide their time before wreaking havoc. Where Stokes edges Malan, however, is his flexibility to accelerate in the powerplay if and when the situation demands.
In his IPL career, Stokes has struck at a healthy 135.0 inside the powerplay. This number shot up to 142.7 last season, where he opened, and he generally tends to dance down the wicket - even to the pacers - and thread the gaps efficiently to take full toll of the field restrictions. Though predominantly being a middle-order batsman, he has shown, in the past, that he can adapt his game to replicate a Tier A T20 opener; such is his quality.
Contrastingly, Malan’s approach inside the first six overs have not just been a major concern, but have immeasurably hurt the side. Since the start of 2018, in 57 non-international T20 games, Malan has struck at a snail-like 109.1 inside the powerplay, while in the ongoing T20Is versus India, this number has dropped to an unacceptable 84.4. In the 4th T20I, in particular, England, chasing 186, needed Malan to accelerate after Buttler and Roy had amassed just 15 in the first 17 deliveries, but the southpaw, instead, scored just 5 off the 8 powerplay deliveries he faced. It is one thing to religiously stick to one approach, but the hallmark of great batsmen is to adapt; thus far in his short international career, Malan, particularly on slow wickets, has displayed a glaring inability to play according to the situation.
Now the question can be raised - why should Stokes replace Malan of all people, when there is clearly no need for the same. One, Stokes simply has a higher ceiling. Malan might have had a remarkable start to his T20I career, but his overall T20 numbers - an average of 33 and SR of 128 across 227 matches - suggest that a dip in form is inevitable, and he is, all in all, an anchor who straddles between ‘good’ and ‘average’. Two, and most importantly, pushing Stokes to No.3 will free up a spot in the middle-order for England to accommodate a right-hander, and this would be vitally important for the side.
As observed by Nasser Hussain on Sky Cricket, the England middle-order - #5, #6 and #7 - currently comprises only left-handers, and this not only makes the bating highly one-dimensional but also brings about unfavourable match-ups. Shardul Thakur, for instance, in both the 2nd and the 4th T20I, kept plundering the off-cutters into the wicket, and this made life hell for the English left-handers, owing to the ball moving away from them. Injecting a right-hander would add more balance and dynamism to the side and, as it turns out, England already have two effective options in the form of Liam Livingstone and Sam Billings.
While Livingstone - a flexible batsman who can bat anywhere from 1 to 6 - will also provide the side with an extra spinning option - he bowls both off and leg spin - Billings, on the other hand, is a seasoned customer who also has prior experience batting in India in the middle order. In 7 innings at #5 in the IPL, Billings has struck 169 runs at quite a remarkable SR of 150.9.
Moeen Ali, in the eyes of many, is the ideal candidate to barge into the side in the scenario of Malan getting dropped, but the off-spinner’s underwhelming record - and unreliability - with the bat means that he will not be competing for a spot in the Top 6. He will, instead, be vying to take the spot of Sam Curran, whose bits-and-pieces batting and bowling have not rendered too useful for England in T20 international cricket thus far.
The ball is in England’s court, then. The India series has thus far not gone as Morgan and the management would have envisioned, but lying in the fifth and final game is an opportunity to not just right the wrongs of the first four games, but to experiment with a tactic that could prove to be an ingredient for long-term success. Paul Collingwood's words on Friday suggests that there will be no radical changes to the English line-up come the fifth and final T20I, but making one might just be the need of the hour for the greater good of the side.