After another memorable summer, ecb.co.uk’s Matt Somerford has picked out Ben Stokes‘ all-round performance against New Zealand at Lord’s as the best England moment he witnessed first hand.
When Ben Stokes reflects on his Ashes-winning summer perhaps the moment he will take most pride from came before the Australians had even arrived.
It was in the first Test against New Zealand, the country of his birth, that the 24-year-old began a summer-long journey to unquestionably establish himself as England’s premier all-rounder heading into a new era under Head Coach Trevor Bayliss.
Stokes could hardly have claimed to be that man at the start of the summer when his hard-edged spirit, and that maiden Test ton in Perth, carried the weight of the expectation that had built on his broad shoulders.
If England’s selectors, and a host of pundits, were endeared by those qualities, finding a way to pair his all-round talent on a consistent basis remained elusive.
It was what had prevented him from separating himself from his colleagues – the likes of Chris Jordan and Chris Woakes, who had themselves made good cases for the all-rounder’s role.
Stokes began the task of ending the argument in the very first session of the first Investec Test against the Black Caps at Lord’s in late May when his promotion to number six, by stand-in Head Coach Paul Farbrace, prove the catalyst in his growth on the international stage.
England had crashed to 30 for four inside the first hour and the alarm bells that were already ringing – following the group-stage World Cup exit and drawn Caribbean Test series in the winter – were threatening to become deafening as discontent amongst cricket followers in this country became uncomfortably palpable.
Stokes’ reaction was to launch a counter-attack, alongside Joe Root, that would epitomise the tone of the summer.
They combined in a 161-run stand in 32 overs with Stokes crashing 92 from 94 balls.
That Stokes misread a Mark Craig delivery to be bowled just shy of a first century since he defied the jig-sawed surface at the WACA Ground was secondary to the marker he had laid down.
The frustrated exit Stokes made after that dismissal hinted he still had unfinished business and, while New Zealand would claim a 134-run first-innings lead, the Durham man set about completing the job he had started in one of England’s most stirring comebacks of recent times.
He would do so with the quickest-ever Test century seen at Lord’s, from 85 balls, that transformed HQ’s uniquely courteous mood into a throbbing hum and holler of recognition for his brazen power.
At his most devastating Stokes clubbed 31 in 13 deliveries, his bat providing a rivet-gun supply of boundaries, as he totalled 15 fours and three sixes.
With Alastair Cook, who later described the Lord’s atmosphere as the most raucous he had ever known, Stokes contributed 101 of a 135-run stand.
By the end of day four England had rushed 295 runs ahead and – with the winter’s travails ebbing from memory and a stunning victory within their grip – 20,000 fans flocked to Lord’s on a Bank Holiday Monday for the final day.
Queues snaked around the famous old venue before play and if the fans came for a sight of their new all-round hero, they were not to be let down.
After toying with Kane Williamson, who had been so assured in making a first-innings century, Stokes drew a false stroke to offer Root a catch he dare not drop in the gully.
Next ball Stokes produced the delivery of the match. He cut Brendon McCullum in half, with a ball that moved back up the slope, as the cramped Black Caps captain diverted the ball onto his stumps.
Lord’s roared like it rarely ever does, Stokes fist-pumped with channelled anger and in that one moment England’s winter of discontent slipped off the radar.
The new brush of assertive cricket, embodied in the early-season visage of Stokes taking up the attack in troubled times, was imprinted and became the hallmark of England’s play, in all formats, for the rest of the summer.
Suddenly England’s under-fire young players had reason for belief, if not quite overwhelmingly confidence, ahead of the Ashes. And just as importantly, when Moeen Ali held a spectacular catch at third-man, a 124-run victory had been secured to kickstart the summer.
“(It was) absolutely amazing the best game of cricket I’ve ever been involved in,” Stokes told ecb.co.uk moments after Moeen’s catch.
“To be a part of something like that at such a great ground like Lord’s is absolutely fantastic and something I’ll never ever forget.”
Many more memorable days would follow, as Stokes became an Ashes winner for the first time, as he confirmed himself as a lynchpin of England’s forthright approach to all formats.
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