Ben Stokes was appointed as England’s Test captain last week following his great friend Joe Root’s resignation from the top post. The talismanic all-rounder will have a mission to revive his country in the game’s longest format, where they were struggling in the last couple of years under Root.
Ben Stokes is not just a unicorn of English cricket. He can smash the ball all over the ground, he can chip in with a few overs to produce crucial breakthroughs, and at the same time, he can be a deadly fielder as well. Stokes, in all, is a complete package.
But now, the world of cricket is about to witness a new Stokes, something they were never habituated to at the highest level. The Englishman is considered to be their new Test skipper by Rob Key, the ECB’s new managing director for men’s cricket. “He is the best man for the job,” Key opined about Stokes after his appointment.
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Key’s statement was true, but surely not in a positive way. England are having a torrid time in red-ball cricket, winning once from their 12 matches in the ongoing ICC World Test Championship. As a consequence, they find themselves at the bottom of the points table, with 18 points at 12.50 PCT (percentage of points).
There is pleasure in Stokes’ appointment but at the same time, there is pressure. England had two charismatic all-rounders – Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff – as leaders in the past, of whom none did enjoy significant success. Now Stokes is the captain of the ship, which has been sinking for some time.
Joe Root, who was earlier there at the helm, decided to drop James Anderson and Stuart Broad – England’s two highest wicket-takers in Test cricket – from the tour of the Caribbean in March. The move did not work as England returned home with an embarrassing 1-0 defeat. It triggered ECB to make the obvious change, which perhaps they could have and should have done earlier.
Key has hinted that Broad, 35, and Anderson, 39, will return to the mix in England's next Test assignment. But Stokes must find some others who can improvise and use their natural talents for long-time replacements. They have one in Ollie Robinson already but need at least two more to get the depth right.
I want to be part of a team that doesn't take a backwards step."
Since 2017, England have lost 17 Tests away from home, the equal worst record alongside Bangladesh in this period. It is still not a catastrophe for Bangladesh, given the fact they are yet to play more frequently in the longest format. Of course, they are not the same big boys as England either.
One way or another, Stokes must do something to reverse England’s curse. They have to find two quality openers first who can contribute themselves to the longer run. None of Rory Burns, Haseeb Hameed, and Zak Crawley is working at the moment, although they may still get a few more opportunities to prove themselves.
In Tests, the English side is completely opposite to their recent records in limited-overs cricket. They do not have the batters who can score runs consistently to support Root. They have options in Dawid Malan, Jonny Bairstow, Ollie Pope, and Dan Lawrence, and will be keen to reinvent themselves alongside Stokes. Yes, England desperately need a stabilised batting unit, not a lonely workhorse.
Since Graeme Swann retired in December 2013, England are yet to have a quality wicket-taking spinner for Tests. They have one in Adil Rashid, but he is no longer in their red-ball setup. The ECB, as well as Stokes, will be keen to find someone beyond Jack Leach, who can inspire them with wickets, especially in subcontinents.
Stokes knows his job is not going to be an easy peasy. But he is well aware of the fact where he is heading, at least for now. “I have had to live with the tag of Andrew Flintoff and Sir Ian Botham since I was 18 but I've never tried to be Andrew Flintoff or Sir Ian Botham. I'm Ben Stokes,” Stokes told Sky Sports News on May 3.
"I will be putting all my energy into doing that as I know I have a huge role here getting this Test team back to winning ways.
“We have to be careful with how much I do and I'm sure there will be conversations with the director of cricket Rob [Key] and Eoin [Morgan], who is captain of the white-ball team about where there is potential to have some time off, but in terms of the workload going up it's not going to change."
Stokes knows he has plenty of areas to work on in a very short time. There will be no pressure in the next three months or so, but the 30-year-old must keep himself busy to rebuild the squad. He has already confirmed Root won’t be there as vice-captain to assist him. He does not want any burden on his beloved friend’s shoulders anymore.
"The vice-captaincy can sometimes feel like a token-gesture role but I took it very seriously because you are playing a huge part in helping your captain. It's a very, very important role and not something to take for granted,” Stokes highlighted.
“Joe [Root] will always be someone I look to for advice, someone players will turn to for advice. He has captained the team for six years, it would be stupid not to ask for advice. But making him vice-captain would be a bit backward as if I left the field he would be captain again and he has just stepped down."
All Stokes wants is a fresh beginning. But he must bring something out of the box to get things running in a positive manner.