A year ago Ben Stokes returned from Barbados having made a fool of himself. Struggling for form, he reacted to his first ball failure in a T20I by returning to the dressing room and punching his locker so hard that he broke his wrist. It was an injury that ruled him out of the World T20 that followed.
It would be naive to claim he is a completely reformed character now. There is still an edge; still something just a little feral about him. You wouldn’t want to spill his pint in a pub.
And you wouldn’t want to change him. Channel him, perhaps. But not change him. Because English cricket is already well-stocked with careful cricketers. It is well-stocked with percentage cricketers who bowl good areas, bat with discipline and field tidily. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.
But Stokes could be special. It is his passion – his almost angry desire to win – that saw him rise to the moment while others cowered away during the Ashes. A batsman capable of destroying the best attacks – remember the Perth Test? – a bowler of unusual strength and pace and an outstanding fielder wherever he finds himself, Stokes has the potential to inspire, excite and damage. If all goes to plan, he could balance the England team for a decade.
It was a point acknowledged by West Indies coach Phil Simmons ahead of the Barbados Test. “I wish I had him at No. 6,” Simmons said.” He’s in the mould of Jacques Kallis. He can take a game away with you with bat or ball.
“He’s the glue that holds the England team together. His bowling allows Jimmy Anderson to come back fresh and that’s a big thing. He showed his quality in Australia. He took them on and he scored a hundred. I’ve been impressed with him since then. That’s the kind of cricketer you need.”
They are strong words and, coming from an opposition coach during a series, they carry extra weight.
But a word of caution is required, here. Stokes is supremely talented. But he is no more talented than Rikki Clarke was at 20 or Ben Hollioake was at 19. Young cricketers don’t come with a guarantee. At some stage Stokes has to fulfil the talent.
That has only happened sporadically to date. His bowling average in this series – 214 – is eye-wateringly awful, while his marvellous innings of 79 in Antigua was followed by an innings of 8 in Grenada, which ended when he pulled a long-hop into the hands of deep midwicket. On both occasions he played admirably selflessly but both innings were ended somewhat gormlessly.
But statistics sometimes tell only the partial story. Stokes actually bowled splendidly in Antigua. He hurried batsmen on a slow pitch – he was regularly timed above 90mph – and combined that hostility with control. But for a wicket off a no-ball and a couple of dropped chances, his figures would be somewhat improved.
While he was not quite so controlled in Grenada – he conceded 16 fours in his 25 overs – he continued to ease the load on Anderson, in particular, and underlined the impression that he is a vastly talented player in a period of development. He needs to learn more skills with the ball – and he will find no one better to learn from than Anderson – and just a little patience with the bat. Nobody wants to change him, but he may require investment and patience.
For that reason, if no other, it seems England will persevere with him in the side for the third Test. While the wicket looks dry – very good for batting, but dry – and West Indies picked two spinners for the last Test here (against New Zealand last June; Sulieman Benn claimed a five-wicket haul in the first innings), an unchanged England side appears likely.
“He certainly is someone that the more he plays the better he’ll be, there’s no doubt about that,” Paul Farbrace, the England assistant coach said after training on Wednesday.
“At the moment I see him as a batsman who bowls. We want him to develop into a high quality allrounder. By playing him he’ll make the progression he needs and he needs to play. The more he plays the more he’ll understand international cricket.”
“It’s the same with Chris Jordan and Moeen. The more they play the more they’ll understand it and the more they will win games.
“We all saw the progress Jordan and Stokes made by playing. Yes, they might be quite similar but there was good progression by playing them. Stokes has had one outstanding game and one tougher game. Jordan seems to be progressing all the time.
“You would think that, if you were thinking of playing two spinners, they’re the most likely to miss out, but at the same time you want to keep progressing them and keep pushing them forward. We’re all seeing the progress that the two of them are making.”
The England selectors were criticised retrospectively for not taking Stokes to the World Cup. But he had passed 10 only three times in his last 10 ODIs (his highest score was only 33 and he averaged 11), while his bowling had become a liability. It was his own fault he missed out. Just as missing out on the World T20 was his own fault.
He knows that. And he knows that, in returning to Barbados, he has a chance to put things right. The Ben Stokes story is just beginning; it should be a lot of fun.
In an ideal world, England might like to rest Anderson and Stuart Broad. But the series is not won and failure would bring consequences. So England will probably play an unchanged side in Barbados. That is tough on Liam Plunkett and Adam Lyth and Adil Rashid and Mark Wood – all of whom are training well – but Jordan and Stokes are learning their trade in international cricket and need some continuity to settle. They have bowled some tough overs in docile conditions.
Meanwhile the ECB has supplied candidates for the director of cricket role with a job specification. Contrary to reports elsewhere, nobody has yet been offered the role and Andrew Strauss – perhaps encouraged by news that it is not necessary to travel with the team – has not withdrawn from the running. Tom Harrison is in New York and Colin Graves has just arrived in Barbados.