ENGLAND IN NEW ZEALAND, 2018
Ben Stokes provided the important breakthrough by removing Tom Latham after a 178-run stand. © Getty
Until the 40th over of New Zealand’s pursuit of England’s 285 for 8, it had been a low-key international comeback for Ben Stokes following his arrest outside a Bristol nightclub in September which kept him out of international cricket for almost five months. No drama, no issues, just a cricketer going about his business.
With the bat, Stokes had made 12 from 22 balls. He was dropped on 2 by Trent Boult in his follow through, reverse swept leg-spinner Ish Sodhi nicely for four but then tried to slog the same bowler out of the ground shortly after, only to loop a catch up to short third man. Stokes, batting without a bat sponsor following New Balance’s decision to end their association with him after the Bristol incident, looked rusty.
But Stokes is not a cricketer who is ever out of the game for long.
He was brought on second change in New Zealand’s reply and bowled four overs for just 15 runs. His second ball registered 142kph. Jos Buttler said after the match that Stokes was the quickest of England’s fast-bowlers but nothing much happened in that first spell as Ross Taylor and Tom Latham cautiously began their mammoth 178-run partnership. When Stokes returned to the attack in the 38th over, Taylor and Latham were still in place.
Reports had suggested that Stokes may only bowl one spell. Although he has been training hard in the indoor nets at Durham and played some domestic cricket in New Zealand for Canterbury before Christmas, he’s not fully match fit. One spell would ease him back into the international game nicely and get him ready for the rest of the series and the Test matches to follow.
But when England needed a breakthrough, with New Zealand 187 for 3 and coasting, captain Eoin Morgan turned, as he has done so often, to Stokes. His first over back cost 11 with two boundaries coming off the bat of Taylor who tucked in to two nondescript short balls. The batsman then scampered a single off the last delivery to Moeen Ali at mid on who promptly got a verbal volley from Stokes.
“Come on, man!” the all-rounder shouted, clearly unimpressed that Moeen had let Taylor retain the strike. Stokes walked off to his fielding position shaking his head.
That intervention seemed to fire England up. The first ball of his next over, Adil Rashid fielded well at third man and Stokes made a point of applauding him. All the close fielders came in closer to prevent the easy single with England’s energy visibly rising. Fifth ball, Latham, perhaps pressured by the uplift in intensity, slapped a good length delivery to mid on. Stokes roared in delight and England had their breakthrough.
Next over, Tom Curran got Henry Nicholls out well caught by Jason Roy at point. The following over, Stokes removed Colin de Grandhomme, caught behind wafting at a full ball. New Zealand had fallen from 205 for 3 to 215 for 6 and England were, by Morgan’s estimation, probably ahead in the game. They had swiftly turned a demoralising position into one filled with opportunity even if Mitchell Santner eventually saw the hosts to victory.
Stokes was the man who changed the course of events.
It was the sort of intervention that he has become renowned for since his return to both the Test and limited-overs teams in 2015. Given license by coaches Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace, Stokes has developed into England’s heartbeat. He gives the team energy and aggression and invariably makes something happen with bat and ball. The game is always moving forward when Stokes is involved.
England lacked that sort of influence during the Ashes series which Stokes missed following the incident in Bristol. Whether the 26 year-old would have made any difference to the final outcome is a moot point but it’s unlikely he alone would have changed the result. At the very least, though he would have given Joe Root’s team an edge, someone to meet the fire and brimstone of the home team head on. His loss was a massive one.
With the looming court case hanging over him, Stokes could end up missing more cricket for England in the coming months. In the limited overs game, as they showed by defeating Australia 4-1 in the ODI series earlier this year, England can probably cope without him. Right now, England’s Test side certainly can’t.
The last few months will no doubt have taken their toll on Stokes himself but he looked happy and content to be back on the field in an England shirt, throwing himself around the field and giving out advice and encouragement to his teammates. Whatever your view of what happened last September or of how it has been handled by the ECB, it has been a difficult situation for all involved and there is bound to be lingering anger, embarrassment and frustration for all parties.
That will have to be managed by Bayliss and Andrew Strauss at the ECB but on the evidence of today, the squad has welcomed him into the fold with open arms. Stokes was embraced warmly by a smiling Joe Root following the wicket of Latham and after the match, Buttler said it was “fantastic” to have him back for what he brings to England both on and off the field.
“He’s delighted to be back, he’s told everybody that,” said Morgan. “It’s an awesome feeling, when you’ve been away and you’re back in a fun environment, with lots of good friends around. I can vouch for that. I spend a lot of time away while the Tests are on. You come back and it puts a smile on your face.”
At least for now, the focus is on Stokes’s performances and the impact he can have on top-level cricket matches. And after a difficult few months, that can only be a good thing.