The patient is ill. England’s loose Test team wants Ben Stokes to become an alchemist.
To begin with, Stokes’ appointment as England’s Test captain is good news for the purest format of the game. Virat Kohli as India’s captain was a great ambassador for Test cricket, inspiring the new age Indian cricketers to love long form. Kohli has already captained in international cricket and now it is time for Stokes to bat. Like Kohli, he is larger than life, a global star. Stokes has the charisma and skill to promote Test cricket. His inspiring presence can get the team out of trouble as far as England are concerned.
But there’s a catch. Celebrity captains have traditionally not sat well with English cricket – from Wally Hammond to Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen. Stokes may reverse the trend. He is the only England cricketer who can change the course of the match with both bat and ball. He has a good tactical mind and unlike Pietersen, he is extremely popular in the dressing room. When Joe Root stepped down as England’s Test captain late, Stokes became a shoo-in.
He was Root’s deputy and while he served as the stop-gap captain, Stokes’ captaincy was impressive. “Stokes has fire in his stomach and a positive attitude to succeed. However, this alone does not guarantee success,” former Australia captain Ian Chappell wrote in his ESPNcricinfo column last month. Stokes is, indeed, an incredible job. England’s Test performance in the last one year has been very poor. They took a 2–1 lead in the home series against India, were battered in the Ashes Down Under and were also successful in losing a Test series in the West Indies. Does English cricket have enough long-form talent to improve the curriculum?
A captain is only as good as his team and Stokes cannot make an average team a world champion overnight. Do England have an opener beyond Jack Crawley, Rory Burns, Dom Sibley and Haseeb Hameed who can inspire confidence against quality pace? Who will bat around Root and Stokes in the middle order? Jos Buttler should have cemented his place in the England Test squad this time around to woo the Indian fans with his superb hitting in the IPL. It’s a shame he has failed to do so, even though he has a lot of talent. It’s about the mind-set that turns a limited-overs power-hitter into a Test rookie. Does Butler have a Test future under Stokes, two like-minded cricketers?
Then, there is the curious case of Liam Livingstone, arguably England’s finest batting talent after Root and Stokes, whom the country’s cricket hierarchy does not consider sufficient for Tests. “The time has come for England to back up the talent of Liam Livingstone. He is very free-spirited and I love the way he is eager to entertain. He wants to give it a smack so he just does it, there’s no turning back. It is wonderful to see. There are no better batsmen in England than him, let me tell you,” Pietersen wrote in his Betway blog.
As a player, Stokes enjoys playing bold and fearless cricket. Even as a captain, he needs to adopt boldness. Under Root’s leadership, the England Test team was going backwards. Livingstone and Harry Brooke should show the way forward.
What about bowling? No disrespect to James Anderson, a legend in his own right, who is still capable of talking the ball in favorable conditions. But the 39-year-old and 35-year-old Stuart Broad, it turns out that the cupboard is empty. In his first meeting with England men’s team managing director Rob Key, Stokes reportedly demanded Anderson and Broad return to the Test squad after both were dropped for the Caribbean tour. As a captain, he is entitled to demand what he feels will be in the best interest of his team. Anderson and Broad are still in demand, however, that do not keep English cricket in good shape. Imagine Indian or Australian cricket remembering a 40-year-old fast bowler as a rescue act… it won’t happen. As far as spin bowling is concerned, if Jack Leach is your No. 1 Test spinner, you are in trouble.
Stokes’ appointment is a needed cormine push to England’s Test team after the Ashes debacle and Caribbean disappointment. His whirlwind return to county cricket – 161 off 88 balls, including 17 sixes for Durham against Worcestershire – provided further embellishment. However, to present a cynical point of view, a first-class side admits to so many sixes against a batsman that there is poor bowling, which does not bode well for the championship. Caught in the quagmire of perceived apathy, the deteriorating standard of county cricket is being blamed for the long-form lack of good talent in English cricket. Stokes’ real test will begin in less than a month, with world Test champions New Zealand visiting Lord’s on June 2.