The headlines will be about Moeen Ali. Rarely do Test matches see hat-tricks, let alone ones that win a game. The spectacular finish to The Oval Test was a culmination of a clever and determined England performance. And when they play like that, Joe Root’s side look like absolute world beaters.
Rewind back to the opening stages of the Test match, and it was Alastair Cook who laid the platform for England’s success. Against some high-quality bowling in tough conditions, the former skipper showed immense skill and mental fortitude to hang in there and grind out crucial runs for his side. Without Cook’s 88 from 200 balls, England would have been in all sorts of trouble on day one.
Yet in between Cook’s solid foundations and Moeen’s final day heroics, it was the performance of Ben Stokes that really got England back on track. He produced a sparkling all round contribution, making 143 runs and taking three crucial wickets in the match, along with three smart catches. As a result, Stokes deservedly won the man of the match award.
When you think of Stokes, certain adjectives come to mind. Brutal is one, aggressive, powerful, ferocious, fiery, talented and skilful are others. He has gained a reputation as a player who never backs down, one that will take the attack to the opposition regardless of their quality and the match situation. It is no wonder that many a comparison has been made with England’s last great all-rounder, Andrew Flintoff.
But there are also words that we don’t normally associate with Stokes. Words such as mature, responsible, careful and calm haven’t been mentioned as much when describing his contributions on the field. But The Oval’s hundredth Test match was a fitting place to see a different side of Stokes, a side that he needed to prove he was capable of showing in order to elevate him into the bracket of one of the great all-rounders we have been in modern times.
There was no better example of this than with his first innings 112. The end of his knock may have seen him go from 91 to 109 in three balls thanks to a trio of sixes, but we already know Stokes has that in his locker. We have seen his devastating ability to take attacks apart with an ease that would make most people watching very jealous indeed.
It was the start of his innings that intrigued most, though. Time after time, Stokes was beaten by superb, challenging deliveries from the excellent Vernon Philander. And as the ball beat the bat, we and probably Stokes himself were starting to wonder how he would get his innings underway.
But Stokes refused to be cowed in the face of such skilful bowling. If fact, he just laughed it off. It probably amused him that a bowler could so consistent as Philander was. All he could do was have a chuckle and focus on the next delivery and that is exactly what he did. He knew the chances would come later on.
In the past, Stokes may have tried to hit his way out of trouble. And given the attacking nature with which England are insistent on playing, it would not have been surprising for him to lose his patience and dance with the devil. But Stokes knew the situation required patient, pragmatic Test match batting and that, in order to erase the nightmares of Trent Bridge, he had to stay in there and build an innings.
On day two, Stokes started to find his form and was playing some delightful strokes, though it did not come without difficulty. For example, to move from 50 to 76 took him 60 deliveries and boundaries were in short supply. So instead, Stokes looked for the ones and twos, trying to use gaps in the field to manoeuvre the ball around. He knew England needed him to stay there, and the all-rounder sacrificed his entertaining side for a more prosaic approach. It worked wonders.
As Stokes ran out of partners, the big hits then came out. But he earned that freedom thanks to the determination and patience he showed on day one and at the beginning of day two. He was responsible. He played for the team. He played like a proper Test batsman. And that is what England have been crying out for – someone to take responsibility and play according to the match situation.
People may not remember Stokes’s 112 that vividly when they look back on his career in years to come. They’d rather indulge themselves in bringing back the memories of his sensational 258 at Cape Town, and perhaps rightly so. The likelihood is that Stokes will never play that well again. He will never hit the ball that cleanly for that length of time, certainly not in Test match cricket.
The maiden hundred at Perth and the record Lord’s century will also come to mind. Stokes may well be remembered as one who intended on bullying the opposition and when it came off in all its glory, boy was it good to watch. But this match was about a different Stokes, one that was intelligent and played for his team. In the context, it was arguably his most impressive innings for his country yet.
“It’s the one I’ve had to work hardest for,” Stokes said at the end of day two. “I came off the field after the first day and did not feel in the best of form. I had played and missed at a few balls and Vernon had a few over me. I had to stick in with Cooky. We both knew that it was going to be tougher for the guys coming in after us so we had to work through the hard times to put away any bad balls.”
Does Stokes’ knock represent a change in mindset for England? They have been heavily criticised, and rightly so, for being too impatient when they bat which has led to such inconsistent form not just in this series, but since Trevor Bayliss took over at the start of the 2015 summer. The reality is that this is how England should always look to approach their batting and if they add more intelligence to their undoubted skill and potential, we could see a mighty fine team moving forward.
Stokes showed the way, and it’s time for England to follow his lead.