Since it was confirmed that England will be resting a number of players during the Test series against India, most of the focus has been on who will be missing at various stages of the tour. What has received less attention is who England are welcoming back.
Ben Stokes has returned to the squad after being rested for the Sri Lanka tour. That England were able to win both Tests in Galle without their talismanic all-rounder says much for the growing depth of the squad, the quality of the two performances and, perhaps, the relative strength of their opponents. Nevertheless, having Stokes back ahead of such an important series is clearly a significant boost to England.
He is enjoying the most consistent period of his career with the bat and with the ball, he provides England’s attack with the aggression and pace that is so important on flat wickets. He is also the team’s vice-captain, one of their leaders and a great support to Joe Root. England are likely to need all of the determination and resilience they can muster over the next five weeks and Stokes, more than anyone, infuses them with those qualities. His presence also means England can balance their side in a number of ways, picking an extra batsman if desired.
But as much as Stokes is important to England, so too is this series important for Stokes. His overall record in Asia is far from bad – he averages 29.92 with the bat and an excellent 26.48 with the ball from 13 Tests – but it is certainly not a fair reflection of the cricketer Stokes now is. On no other continent does he average less than 35 with the bat, for instance. Outside Bangladesh, where he took 11 wickets in two Tests at an average of 10 in 2016, Stokes averages 36.50 with the ball in Asia.
As ever, the figures do not quite tell the full picture. Firstly, you cannot judge Stokes’ impact simply by statistics. He often delivers important moments in matches which might not look flash on a scorecard but which change the course of the game. In Cape Town in early 2019, Stokes was Player of the Match, having scored 47 and 72 – the latter of which came off 47 balls as England set-up a declaration – taken three wickets and five catches. Other players scored more runs and took more wickets; none had a bigger impact on the result than Stokes.
Secondly, Stokes has only played three Tests in Asia since the start of 2017. The other ten came during the formative years of his career, when he was still learning and developing. He is now a different – better and more experienced – version of the player he was before. Since the start of 2019, Stokes has been England’s most consistent batsman, averaging over 50 with four hundreds in 18 matches. He has been bowled less of late in a bid to protect his body but has still taken important wickets and, last year, averaged 18.73 with the ball. He has now played 67 Test matches.
There is reason to think, then, that Stokes is better placed than he has ever been before to have an impact on a series in India. It will certainly be the first time he has played in Asia at the top of his game. But there is also little doubt that he will want to – and England will need him to – improve on his previous performances in that part of the world.
He is clearly a far more rounded Test match batsman than he was during his early appearances in Asia. On his first Test tour there, Stokes began brightly enough, with a first innings half-century in the opening Test against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi in October 2015. But unfortunately for him, that was to prove the high-water mark of the trip. During the rest of the series, the shortcomings of Stokes’ batting against spin – both technical and tactical – were clear to see.
When he next played Test cricket in Asia, during a run of seven Tests in Bangladesh and India towards the end of 2016, Stokes had clearly developed his game against the spinners. After he made an excellent 85 in the opening Test of that winter in Chittagong on a raging turner, Trevor Bayliss, England’s head coach, said: “It is his defence against spin that has improved out of sight.”
Previously, Bayliss said, Stokes’ footwork – or lack of it – had caused him to get stuck on the crease. As a result, he was groping for the ball with his hands. During that innings in Bangladesh, it was noticeable how far forward he was getting to smother the spin when the bowlers pitched full. When they dropped short, Stokes jumped back. He had developed a method that looked far more durable. He had added some nous too. At the time, Stokes described that innings in Chittagong as his most mature in Test cricket.
He carried that approach into the first two Tests against India. In Rajkot, he scored a fine first innings hundred and then followed it up with a backs-to-the-wall 70 in the first innings in Vizag after an England top order collapse. If the innings in Rajkot benefited from batsmen friendly conditions, the pitch in Vizag, which turned appreciably even on the first day, presented a far sterner challenge. Arguably, given the situation and the surface, it was a more impressive innings.
From then on, however, Stokes struggled somewhat with the bat, although he picked up a five-wicket haul in the third Test in Mohali. In his last seven innings of that series, he registered three ducks and a top score of just 31. That was despite England winning the toss in all of the final three Tests and batting first. As India’s batsmen racked up a mountain range of runs – Kuran Nair scored a triple hundred in the final Test and even Jayant Yadav, a bowler, reached three figures in the fourth – Stokes’ returns, as those of his teammates did, fell away.
That was as much to do with tiredness as anything. It was an exhausting run of matches and every England player looked spent by the end of it. A weary Alastair Cook resigned as captain. There had been, however, more evidence of the development in Stokes’ game.
That continued when England returned to Asia two years later, to play Sri Lanka. Stokes enjoyed his most impactful series there to date. He scored a half-century in the opening Test in Galle and made two important contributions in the third game in a low scoring series on pitches that turned square, displaying a mix of solid defence and his trademark aggression, stepping out to hit the spinners over the top and sweeping hard.
He also picked up some important wickets, bowling fast and aggressively at Sri Lanka’s batsmen, particularly during a vital ten over spell at the SSC in Colombo in the third Test. In the second, in Pallekele, he ran out Dimuth Karunaratne at a crucial moment too. Sri Lanka coach Chandika Hathurusingha said Stokes was the difference between the sides in the last two matches.
He will hope to have the same impact on this series. His battle against R Ashwin should be fascinating. Ashwin is the bowler who has dismissed Stokes the most in Tests – seven times in eight matches – and got him out on five occasions during that 2016 series. Then, Stokes was dismissed twice LBW, twice caught behind the wicket off edges and once from a ball that lobbed up to second slip off his boot following an attempted reverse sweep.
It has certainly not been one way traffic. Stokes averages 25 against Ashwin and has been dismissed every 68.7 balls against him so it is hardly a case of Shane Warne bowling to Daryl Cullinan. Even so, the battle between the two all-rounders could well be pivotal to the outcome of the series.
Stokes will need to contribute with the ball as well. Away from home, he is the bowler Root often turns to when England need to break a partnership. That was the case at the SSC and on the final afternoon in Cape Town. His aggressive, hit-the-deck style bowling, allied to immense stamina and strength, is well suited to overseas conditions. He has a significantly better strike rate in Asia than James Anderson and Stuart Broad. It would be a surprise if Stokes does not make his mark, at least once, with the ball.
A team-man to his core, Stokes will not be particularly bothered about his individual record in this series as long as England do well. But England almost certainly won’t do well unless he makes a significant contribution, particularly with the bat. Stokes will certainly be up for it. Playing against Virat Kohli’s team, who have not lost a Test at home since February 2017, is the sort of challenge he loves. It would be no surprise were he to have his say on these four Test matches. And how England need him to.