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5 December 2022

The risky genius of Ben Stokes

Only a man on a mission to make the draw obsolete could have led England to a 74-run win against Pakistan.

By Tim de Lisle

On Sunday evening (4 December), a nation rejoiced when England’s footballers bounced back from a slow start to blow Senegal away at the World Cup in Qatar. And it wasn’t even the most thrilling England win of the week. That came the next morning, 1,400 miles further east in Rawalpindi, as England’s cricketers won a Test match in Pakistan for only the third time ever. They did it in a style to which no cricket fan is accustomed.

Ben Stokes, who took over as England’s Test captain in April, has not just lifted the team out of the doldrums after a dismal run of only one win in 17 games. Along with England’s new coach, the New Zealander Brendon McCullum, he has reinvented Test cricket, shaking it out of a torpor that had lasted pretty much forever. He has made the oldest form of international cricket every bit as exhilarating as the Twenty20 form of the sport, which happens so fast that it doesn’t even stop for a meal. 

Stokes, a rock-star cricketer, has done what appeared to be impossible and taken a symphony to the top of the charts. His team are the fastest-scoring of any captain in Test cricket’s 145-year history. The previous best on that front (among captains with at least five games in charge) was Steve Waugh, who took over an Australian squad that was already top of the world, in 1999, and added a little urgency. Stokes has added urgency, bravery, excitement, you name it.

His England have beaten the world Test champions (New Zealand), the superpower of cricket (India), the Test nation ranked third in the world (South Africa) and now the opponents who are hardest to beat on their own patch (Pakistan). 

Stokes, an all-rounder, took only one wicket in Rawalpindi and made no runs in his team’s second innings, but he could easily have been named man of the match. Cricket is wedded to numbers, which struggle to capture a captain’s contribution. Yet there was no mistaking who was running the show in Rawalpindi. Never mind man of the match, Stokes was the author of the drama. 

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The only other living England captain to have won a match in Pakistan is Nasser Hussain, who did it by attrition, hanging in there for four days and stealing victory in the dusk on the fifth. Unlike some captains, Hussain is a real student of leadership, and he was in Rawalpindi to commentate on Stokes’s triumph. “I think,” he said, “it was the best bit of captaincy in Test cricket I have ever seen.”

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How does Stokes do it? He takes risks. He urges the batters to go hell for leather. He sets attacking fields. He tells the bowlers to forget about thrift. He says he doesn’t mind losing if his team go for a win, and proved it the one time his policy backfired, against South Africa in August. He shows faith in all his players, going out of his way to pump up their tyres. We now know that that pump of his can even breathe life into a flat pitch, which makes it difficult for bowlers to get batters out.

His win percentage as captain is 87 per cent, the best of any England captain who has done the job both home and away (again, minimum five Tests). Seven wins out of eight since his appointment, no draws. He is a man on a mission to make the draw obsolete. Before last week, three quarters of all England’s Tests in Pakistan had ended in a stalemate. Under Stokes, it’s a whole different ballgame.

[See also: The vast costs of the Qatar 2022 World Cup

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