I spent the first 25 minutes post-midnight deciding that perfect header that could encapsulate so multitudinous a cricketer Ben Stokes has been. But eventually gave up on the ritual, for every time I did, I felt it quite didn't sum him up. How could 110 characters describe a cricketer who fashioned the slowest Test innings of his first-class career across the first two days of the second Test, and two days later, went absolutely berserk in scoring the fastest half-century by an English opener? Not to forget, either side of his fiery fifty laid two of his longest spells in his Test career that comprised mostly of bouncers with the old soft ball.
If there was one player who made it to the headlines of the day's report on all four occasions (leaving out the washed-out day 3), it was Stokes. But he wasn't even the talking point ahead of the crucial second Test. Fans and veterans were relying on Joe Root to make the difference for England after West Indies stunned the hosts in the Southampton opener on July 11.
Yet, all through the Test, it was Stokes that England relied on. Whether it was pushing the first innings total past 400 after a sedated 260-run partnership alongside fellow centurion Dominic Sibley, or whether it was looking for some quick runs to extend the lead past the 250-run mark, or when England required to break crucial partnerships. Stokes delivered each time England wanted to make an inroad.
Although England's 113-run series-levelling win in Manchester on Monday evening had key contributions from Sibley, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes, Stokes's imposing all-round performance, which included 254 runs and three wickets, was what stood as the difference between the two sides. No wonder the skipper hailed him as "Mr. Incredible".
Stokes did play an influencing role in England's Southampton game ten nights ago, scoring some 40 odd runs and taking six wickets, the most contributed by an English player, although in a losing cause. But in Manchester, Stokes had turned back the clock to his Headingley classic, albeit they are vastly different on many levels, one of which includes that the latter was being played in front of a raucous home crowd with the Ashes series on the line. The similarity laid in the immense impact he made on the scoreline which was only witnessed by the members and staff of the two teams, the commentators and a handful of media persons.
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) July 20, 2020
Over the first two days, Stokes was patient is his approach, leaving out more balls than he ever did in his innings (and more than any England player, 102 in total), and being cautious against the ones coming down the channel outside off which he had previously fallen prey to in the first Test. Stokes consumed 255 deliveries on Friday to reach the triple-figure mark - the longest of his 18 first-class centuries - en route to his 176-run knock which eventually came off 356 deliveries. It was his highest knock on home soil, but second-highest in his career after his 258 against South Africa back in 2016.
On the fourth evening, after Windies were folded for 287, England needed a batsman who would provide them with some quickfire runs which could leave the ample for the visitors to chase on the final day while also leaving them with enough overs to take the second new ball. Stokes stepped up as an opener, for the first time in his first-class career, bludgeoned 78 off 57 deliveries, lacing four boundaries and three sixes and single-handedly helped England set up a target of 312 runs. According to CricViz, his attacking percentage of 67 was the most by an opener from England.
His adaptability, or here, his contrasting strike rates - 49.44 in the first innings and 136.84 in the second - was the one that stood out in his immense all-round haul. The only other batsman who did show such contrasting abilities with the bat in modern era was AB de Villiers. But for English fans, it has been a trend over the last 12 months, since his World Cup heroics at home, the period that has witnessed him scoring four centuries, including that Ashes great, at an average of 59.83.
Although, it is his batting that England requite the most, given the depth of English pace attack that bears the audacity of leaving out Broad from a home Test, Stokes took three wickets in the game, two of which were when England were in dire need of a breakthrough. In the first innings, he dismissed Kraigg Brathwaite, ripping off the 76-run partnership alongside Shamarh Brooks. In the second innings, he dismissed the dangerous-looking Jermaine Blackwood, who was on 55, at the stroke of tea. Besides, on the last two days of the Test, he bowled to spells of 11 overs each, both of which comprised mostly of short deliveries, amounting to the most he has bowled in a single Test in his career. Eventually, he left his bowling in the middle of the over on the fifth evening after feeling stiffness in his chest.
As I near the end, the thought of that perfect header has once again engulfed me. And just then, Root came to the rescue. Stokes has made an impact in Test cricket like few others from the present era, one that places him among the legends of the format and all that his captain wants is to savour the moments he creates.
"I think everyone understands that we are watching a player at the peak of his powers, at the peak of world cricket, delivering time and time again. We have to savour that, we have to appreciate that and understand that we are - without trying to pump his tyres too much - in the presence of greatness," Root said.