Ben Stokes’ epic summer with the bat ends in polite fashion | Ali Martin
At 4.17pm on Saturday Ben Stokes’s work with the bat this summer come to an end. Nathan Lyon, the bungling henchman to his superhero at Headingley, got one to dip into the pads, rag past the outside edge and kiss the top of off stump.
It was a beautiful piece of spin bowling. But when a drowsy Oval crowd offered Stokes the polite applause that a score of 67 might usually merit, a chance to thank the all-rounder for his efforts during this epic home season felt slightly missed.
Stokes, unable to bowl in this Test and thus with just fielding left on the to-do list, has hit a new level as a batsman this year; the responsibility that some feared may be shackling his game before the World Cup having paid out some serious jackpots since.
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Because beyond the miracles witnessed in the World Cup final and on that remarkable final day in Leeds, the once undulating Stokes has proved the most reliable player in this flaky England line-up. He averages 48 in Test cricket this year – next best, somehow, is Jack Leach on 35 – and has faced 90 balls per dismissal.
This latest display of controlled dominance came on a slightly subdued day in south London that was in keeping with the week overall. While they have not exactly been wearing own-clothes, watching a mildly educational film or negotiating a quiz set by the teacher, there has been an end of term feel to proceedings.
The teams have achieved their primary objectives – a first 50-over World Cup for England’s men, a first Ashes retention by Australia’s since 2001 – and came into the match looking a bit bedraggled. Both captains were unkempt a day out from the start, saying all the right things through glazed expressions.
It is perhaps why things got a little bit feral out in the middle as England looked to extend their overnight lead of 78 with all 10 wickets in hand. The sky was clear, the sun shining and the air crisp – ideal conditions, one would think, for focused minds. The old stump microphones told us otherwise, however.
In the morning we heard Steve Smith explaining to Joe Denly how “it’s an easy game when there’s no pressure on,” – hardly a confidence booster for leggy bowlers – while Matthew Wade was shovelling some more of his Tasmanian own-brand verbal compost at Joe Root, who replied with “you can’t have it all your own way”, before the umpires stepped in for a word of their own.
As the players walked off for lunch, Stokes was heard calling David Warner “a fucking prick”. The other end of the break, as the two teams trudged back out, Sky’s outgoing and usually urbane David Gower let slip the words “I haven’t got a fucking clue,” with the microphone still on.
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Yet to get off the mark at this stage, and soon dropped by Smith at slip off the bowling of Lyon, Stokes spent a small portion of the afternoon session being called “Bristol” by Australia’s close fielders. The afternoon’s football fixtures did show Stoke hosting Bristol City, but we’re probably entering “Smith was impersonating Chris Rogers not Jack Leach” territory here.
Stokes remains pretty impenetrable on the subject of his late-night altercation in 2017 though – one that similarly came at the end of a gruelling season – and as the session wore on he imposed himself on Australia’s bowlers. Lyon got to re-live some of the highlights in Leeds, while a Marnus Labuschagne full toss was pumped over the rope for an 89-ball half-century.
The end, after tea, came with England fully in charge. Stokes, while disappointed that a chance for a third century this summer was gone, should be hugely satisfied.
His language may remain industrial but the end of term report shows A’s for attainment and diligence, something that may make his old teachers at Cockermouth School smile.