Stokes offers cause for optimism

By Matthew Sherry

Sir Ian Botham. Kapil Dev. Sir Richard Hadlee. Imran Khan.

The eighties was a crazy period in the history of cricket. In the long past of the game, you usually get one great all-rounder in a generation if you’re lucky.

And yet, three decades ago, four came along at once.

It was a truly spectacular era, one that left nations who did not have an all-rounder craving one. ‘If there can be four at the same time, why can’t we have one now?’

And the appeal is obvious, particularly in modern-day cricket.

With the packed international schedule that exists, it allows for an extra, usually fifth, bowling option without – in theory – weakening your batting.

Clearly, a five-man attack, as Australia’s presently and England’s famous 2005 version show, is optimum.

And so, the ‘genuine’ all-rounder – one of the great cricketing clichés – can be the great equaliser in any conditions, the X-factor that turns good teams into great ones. But it is a delicacy too, the caviar of the cricketing world.

And that is why, despite the gloom surrounding England’s Test team at the moment, you may be well served looking at the bright light that is burning ever brighter as the weeks go on.

Make no mistake, in Ben Stokes, they appear to have found themselves quite a cricketer.

His 120 at Perth was an innings for the ages, one any of the great batsmen – be it Lara, Bradman or Tendulkar – would have been proud to call their own.

He is 22 years old and already a serious seam bowler – something that his 6-99 on day one in Sydney, or his stunning delivery that cleaned up Michael Clarke at Melbourne, illustrate.

The buzzword in cricket these days is ‘skills’ (you know how it goes, the winning team executes them; the losing one doesn’t).

With Stokes, they’re all in place: as a batsman, he’s a fine timer of the ball capable of every shot in the textbook; as a bowler, he is quick enough and has nip.

More importantly, though, he appears to also possess that attitude and hunger for the fight that separates great Test cricketers from good ones.

Even today, amid England being dismissed for 155 on a tricky surface, Stokes’ 47 offered a bright spot.

History – yes, that word again! – suggests when one superstar jack-of-all-trades calls it a day, another will emerge.

It’s worth noting, then, that Stokes’ breakthrough innings, that aforementioned masterclass at the WACA, came a week before the great all-rounder of this generation, Jacques Kallis, announced his retirement from Test cricket.

That is undoubtedly a slightly fanciful look at pure coincidence but, if early signs are anything to go by, England can perhaps hope that Stokes is the heir to cricket’s great throne.

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