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Analysis

Is Ben Stokes among the best seven T20I batters in England?

It's a question that could quite quickly look silly, but at the moment it feels relevant

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
12-Oct-2022
Ben Stokes walks from the field after being dismissed  •  Cricket Australia via Getty Images

Ben Stokes walks from the field after being dismissed  •  Cricket Australia via Getty Images

Ben Stokes can do things on the cricket field that few others are capable of, but is he among the best seven T20I batters in England?
It's a question that could quite quickly look silly being asked, but at the moment it feels relevant.
On the international stage, it has been the least convincing of the three formats in Stokes' career - currently a batting average of 19.08 and strike-rate of 133.52 from 30 innings - but it's now one of two he plays having retired from ODIs during the home summer.
It is natural for England to want Stokes in the team, but right now it doesn't quite seem an easy fit. He has won an ODI World Cup for his country and his influence, as has been seen with the Test side this year, amounts to much more than purely runs and wickets. In this game there was the additional funkiness of him bowling the first over of a T20 innings for the first time.
But he's never really found his role in the format and, little more than a week out from the T20 World Cup starting, there is a sense that it's still being searched for, although No. 3 or No. 4 - depending on the game situation - is the task he has been earmarked for.
The opening T20 of this series in Australia was the first time he had picked up a bat in the middle for a month and even someone of Stokes' ability needs time to get back in the groove. However, he has played unconvincingly in Perth and Canberra.
In the first game he came in at No. 3 after the rollicking opening stand between Jos Buttler and Alex Hales and couldn't really maintain the momentum. He fell for 9 off 9 having also taken a blow on the chin for his troubles when he tried to reverse sweep Daniel Sams.
In Canberra the end product was 7 off 11 when he missed a sweep at Adam Zampa and threw his head back in frustration. This time he had come in at No. 4, inside the powerplay, and did have some time to construct an innings but during his stay he collected just seven singles.
This was also the first time England got to look at the No. 3-4 combo of Stokes and Dawid Malan after the latter was shunted down the order in Perth. Stokes is taking a few deliveries to get himself set - and, currently, is not being able to go on from there - which is a style that has been attributed to Malan for parts of his T20 career despite some outstanding overall numbers.
There was data that emerged from the Hundred earlier this year that showed Malan's intent in his first 10 balls and increased markedly. He struggled for the most-part in Pakistan on the slow surfaces, but in Canberra was much more at home, as he has been in the past on Australian surfaces, with more pace to play with. In an interesting contrast to Stokes, in the first five balls of his innings he had a four and a six.
If Stokes is going to soak up a number of early deliveries before he feels he can launch, it becomes even more imperative that Malan maintains that brisker early tempo especially if the pair find themselves together. Malan finished with a superbly-constructed 82 off 49 balls, reading the situation expertly from 54 for 4. A penny for Steven Smith's thoughts on that.
It feels very unlikely that Stokes is left out of the World Cup starting XI, but Liam Livingstone may yet have a part to play. At the moment, the assumption is that if his ankle comes good then he will slot in at No. 7 for the opening game against Afghanistan in Perth, followed by four bowlers. But there is a balance of side that sees them play with one batter fewer - as they have done in this series so far - and utilise an extra bowling-allrounder. Sam Curran may not have been in the original starting plans but is hard to leave out now.
The other aspect to factor in, is an unquantifiable one: Stokes on the big occasion. Ideally he needs a substantial innings in the last game in Canberra on Friday or the warm-up against Pakistan in Brisbane but, in reality, it might not matter when he's in the heat of the battle in a game that really matters.
It's a point of debate whether he's among England's best T20 batters but, as epitomised by the gravity-defying boundary save at long-off, you suspect if things get tight over the next few weeks there's few others Buttler will want by his side.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo