|Notice the classic armpit sniff in the delivery stride.|
As a schoolboy, Ian Botham’s friends called him Bungalow, not because of his physique, but because he had ‘nothing upstairs’. Later in life, media commentators had a tendency to portray him as a talented thug. None of this did him any harm whatsoever. With Botham, most people accepted that you have to take the whole package. Being boorish and acting the clown in his case are side-effects of a single mindedness and a clear vision: “I am Ian Botham. The way that I do things is invariably the best way to do it.” This surety and uncluttered mind are key to success in cricket, a game which more than most is played between the ears.
Cricket writers have been quick to notice the similarities between Beefy and the current heir to his throne, Ben Stokes. For one thing, he has a growing reputation for sledging. Most recently he got a little too nasty with Marlon Samuels, earning him a proper telling off from the umpire. If he takes it too far sometimes, this is nothing new to England fans - last year he took out the frustration of a failed innings on a locker. The result was a broken hand, much to the chagrin of the ECB. Not realising that lockers are usually made from metal, I’m sure Stokes would accept, is the act of a man with nothing upstairs.
But like a young Botham, his immense talent is clear. As a batsman, he’s orthodox, pleasing on the eye, and seems to time the ball effortlessly. In 2013, Stokes hit 120 on a cracked Perth pitch against an Australian bowling attack led by Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris at the peak of their powers. His batting was flawless that day, all assured technique and natural timing. A true all rounder, Stokes is currently England’s quickest bowler. Capable of control, and he hits the pitch hard on an awkward length for the batsman. He has shown this quality too rarely thus far though - His bowling in particular looks like it needs more work. His England career has contained a few too many soft dismissals, and inconsistent (and often wicketless) bowling spells littered with no balls. Having not yet turned 24, my hope is that he is nowhere near the finished article.
Stokes has an obvious competitive edge and an intensity which makes him stand out. He’s been in and out of squads a little since his debut, both because of injury and lack of performance. In his defence, his effectiveness has been limited because he hasn’t been given enough responsibility. He’s rarely been trusted with the ball when it’s at it’s hardest, with Alistair Cook tending to bowl Anderson and Broad for sizable opening spells regardless of whether they’re bowling well.
On paper at least, England’s batting is strong, with county stars like Adam Lyth and James Taylor unable to get a run in the Test side. This has meant Stokes has had to bat 7 and 8, a waste of his talents. When in the groove, his innings’ tend to be chanceless, and he has the capacity to dominate an attack over a sustained period. The England hierarchy shouldn’t be afraid to stick him in at 3 or 4 in limited overs cricket, as Australia do with Shane Watson.
Stokes is the most intriguing prospect in English cricket, and has been for a few years. In Grenada last week, James Anderson broke therecord for test wickets by an Englishman, and Joe Root compiled a wonderful 182 not out. Stokes contributed 8 runs and 1 wicket, and yet he’s the one I’m writing about. He’s a more compelling subject because there’s a danger he won’t achieve his potential. Anderson is an established all-time great entering the final phase of his career, and Root is an utterly convincing world-class batsman with a personality which will carry him through the tough times. I’m not worried about them, but Stokes’ career trajectory is more unpredictable. He could be the best all-rounder in the world in a couple of years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not as easy as all that. History will tell you that being compared to Ian Botham isn’t necessarily a good thing for an English cricketer.