LONDON: Ben Stokes is one of English cricket’s most highly-prized assets — a ‘three-in-one cricketer’, who can change the course of any match.
That is why England, in purely cricket terms, will be so relieved by the not guilty verdict on a charge of affray handed down to Stokes by a Bristol court on Tuesday.
When Stokes is in their XI England look a balanced team, with the 27-year-old Durham star able to be deployed as a third seamer, while his ability to score runs quickly makes him well-suited to a middle-order batting berth. He is also a top-class fielder.
Prior to the second Test against India at Lord’s, which Stokes missed because it clashed with his trial, England coach Trevor Bayliss underlined his worth to the team by saying: “It will be interesting to see who can step up and take his place.
Tellingly, the Australian added: “Someone, or two or three guys, will have to step up and do the extra yards.”
He was also left out of the third Test starting Saturday.
Stokes’s relish for the big stage was evident by the way he bowled England to a 31-run win over India in the first Test at Edgbaston earlier this month, with two wickets in an over, including the prize scalp of India captain and star batsman Virat Kohli, proving decisive.
Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, Stokes came to northwest England in 2003 after his father Ged was appointed coach of the Workington rugby league side.
Some of Stokes’s cricketing ability was inherited from his mother, Deborah, as his father explained.
“Deb was a very good cricketer and I was okay,” Ged Stokes told the Daily Mirror in May 2015.
“She was still playing right up to carrying Ben, and I’m sure that’s why he came out as an all-rounder, because she was as well,” he added.
That talent became evident as Stokes rose through the ranks of youth cricket, where he first became friends with England captain Joe Root.
– Monumental innings –
Stokes played a key role as Durham won England’s first-class County Championship in 2013.
He was selected for England’s ill-fated 2013/14 tour of Australia.
Left-handed batsman Stokes provided a rare highlight for England during a 5-0 Ashes rout with a defiant 120 at Perth, his maiden Test century.
Dashing knocks of 92 and 101 against New Zealand in a 2015 Test at Lord’s were further proof of his ability.
But those innings were overshadowed by Stokes’ monumental 258 from just 198 balls against South Africa in the Cape Town Test of 2016.
Stokes can make an impact with the ball too, as he showed in taking six for 36 in the second innings of England’s Ashes-clinching victory against Australia at Trent Bridge three years ago.
His value has been recognised far beyond England’s shores.
Last year, Stokes became the Indian Premier League’s most expensive foreign player when the Rising Pune Supergiant signed him for £1.7 million ($2.2 million).
He made good on the price-tag by scoring 316 runs at a strike rate of 142.98 and taking 12 wickets at an economy rate of 7.18 in the Twenty20 event.
Stokes’s on-field failures can be as great as his successes — the prime example being when Carlos Brathwaite hit him for four successive sixes to snatch a stunning win for West Indies in the last over of the 2016 World Twenty20 final.
And the aggressive temperament that makes him such a lively competitor on the field spilled over when he punched a locker and broke a bone in his right hand after a dismissal in 2014, forcing him to miss that year’s World Twenty20 in Bangladesh.
The incident outside a Bristol nightclub in September that led to Stokes’s trial saw England eventually decide against playing him in the 2017/18 Ashes, which they lost 4-0 after he had been removed from the position of Test vice-captain.
The pre-series words of former Australia captain Ian Chappell proved prophetic.
“Stokes is two things –- he’s a class above the rest, and he’s such a match-winner that he drags the team along with him,” Chappell said.
“Without him they (England) have no chance (to win the Ashes).”
Stokes returned to international duty during the post-Ashes tour of New Zealand.
It was a curious move by the England and Wales Cricket Board, who had left Stokes out when he had not been charged but selected him when he had.
It has been argued that England need him more than he needs them, as he can enjoy a lucrative career appearing in Twenty20 franchise tournaments, without having to play Test cricket too.
But few doubt the 43-times capped Stokes’s desire to represent England.
Moments after dismissing India’s Hardik Pandya to end proceedings at Edgbaston, Stokes told Sky Sports: “I’m proud to be part of this group, playing for England means so much.”