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Match Analysis

From saviour to self-sacrificing leader, Stokes paves England's way to evolve as a collective

With a focus on leading a revolution, he pushes past tanking numbers that never really quantified his worth

Ben Stokes leaves the field after his dismissal  •  AFP/Getty Images

Ben Stokes leaves the field after his dismissal  •  AFP/Getty Images

For what it is worth, Ben Stokes looked pissed off. Even if he had only himself to blame.
His head whipped back, looking to the heavens to stare down god himself after the ball came off the splice of his bat, grimacing as he felt the contact and narrowing his eyes as he saw substitute fielder Scott Kuggeleijn get into position. There were a few choice, self-flagellating words, a punch to his bat, and the kind of trudge off that, in a previous era, might have suggested the robustness of the walls of the Basin Reserve's newly erected players' pavilion were about to be tested.
His balance was wrong, movements were off, and he played a shot selected by his own internal magic 8 ball that led to his downfall. Such an end, in truth, never seemed that far away. As far as cameos go in an otherwise engrossing production, his 27 off 28 was less Ana de Armas in No Time To Die and more Ana de Armas in War Dogs. Coming in with one half-century in his previous ten innings, this slogger-like innings is how it has been for a while.
But that's fine by him. Because there's an important caveat to toss in here - it didn't matter. Stokes came to the crease at 323 for 4 in the 68th over, and left with England 362, saving his best timing of the day for when he called in his side on 435 for 8. New Zealand went into lunch on 12 for 2 and closed the day on 138 for 7. Even if rain plays a further part in proceedings as expected, the tourists are already in a commanding position to make it 11 wins from their last 12 Tests.
That, really, is the only number Stokes cares about right now. And, really, is there a statistic that matters more, even in as selfish a sport as this? You do remember that "1 win in 17" stat, don't you? The batting average tending one way, the bowling average tending the other - all distractions in the eyes of someone already being talked of as one of England's best captains.
"I'm at a stage now where I would much prefer to leave a mark on other people's careers than look to make mine more established," he had stated before the start of this series. For a player who has been responsible for some of English cricket's biggest highs in the modern era, and a person who, through personal toll, is focused on improving the lives and experiences of those nearest and dearest to him, tanking numbers that never really quantified his worth is no tax at all.
"Ultimately I think it's more important the contributions he is making as a leader at the minute. Because he is getting the best out of ten other players and that in itself is massive for this team"
Joe Root on Ben Stokes
Speaking on the latest edition of the Wisden Cricket Monthly podcast, director of England men's cricket Rob Key had this to say on Stokes' batting: "He just thinks he's going to smack it ten rows back. And everyone else, he makes them all justified in what they do by what he is doing because he is prepared to take it to the limit."
Since the start of last summer, Stokes has attacked 20.1% of deliveries faced. Comparing that to 33 innings across 2019 and 2020 when the attacking percentage was just 8.5% (it was in this period, of four centuries and six fifties, that his technique and approach were so finely tuned he was a legitimate shout to bat No. 3) shows how significant a shift this has been. He averaged 50.41 in that section and currently averages 35.07 in this one.
As for the impact he is having on others, we are having conversations about Harry Brook involving the words "Don Bradman", while James Anderson and Stuart Broad are still winning matches for England in 2023. Young and old are thriving on the field and having the times of their lives off it. Joe Root, the median on that spectrum, registered century number 29 and what he regards as possibly the most satisfying of the four he now has under his best mate's leadership.
"Ultimately I think it's more important the contributions he is making as a leader at the minute," said Root, who had the gig for five years before stepping down last April. "Because he is getting the best out of ten other players and that in itself is massive for this team."
The thing is, those two things - batting as if he has had too much sugar, and making sure everyone else is sweet - aren't all that linked. Certainly at the start of all this, there was a clear need to not just show his charges where the edge of the cliff was but also the pool at the bottom if they veered off it. The collective needed to take the leap as one, in their own ways. But it's pretty obvious from the innings this winter in Pakistan, Mount Maunganui, and this first one in Wellington that he's now preaching to the choir.
Except that Stokes' duties extend beyond the field. In the changing room during an innings, he goes around pumping the tyres of those next in or congratulating/lifting those who have returned. He knows pretty much how everyone in the squad ticks - staff included - and takes a different tack with different personalities. He remains an encouraging voice in the ear of opener Zak Crawley while balancing trust and respect with the members of a seasoned bowling attack who like things a certain way. A case in point: he was happy to announce an unchanged line-up for this second Test after confirming the recoveries of Anderson, Broad and Ollie Robinson by text the morning before.
Before Stokes became captain, the worry was the negative effect it would have on the allrounder. Little did we know that would come about through self-sacrifice. Though we're probably fools in that regard - this is yet another example of putting himself on the line for the good of the team. You wouldn't put it past him to one day sit out a Test yet stick around in the dressing room as the designated hype man.
Root's admiration for where Stokes is right now should be heeded, because the initial dip and late rise in Root's form while wearing the armband was evidently in search of a happy balance between self and side he never truly found. "I think there were times when I was only focused on everyone else, and there were probably times when I was overly focused on myself," he admitted on Saturday evening. "And I think it just comes through time and experience of understanding how you manage both."
Among this is a concern that does need to be tracked. Stokes no longer plays warm-up matches and has stripped down his training considerably from his previously intense levels. His left knee - the one he lands on when he bowls - requires constant management. His bowling now comes from the same place as his batting: primarily the short, energy-sapping spells because he wouldn't want to ask his quicks to do anything he wouldn't, especially the harder, nastier bits. Considering he is one of the best reverse-swing bowlers in the team, there is a sense that fuller spells may be fewer and farther between in case he has to save himself for when the ball stops talking.
Of reassurance are the knocks of last summer at Trent Bridge and Old Trafford. The former against New Zealand, unbeaten for 75 in pursuit of a target of 299, dovetailing with Jonny Bairstow as the straight man and then pulling out all the shots to see things home with Ben Foakes for company. The latter the more encouraging: coming in in the first innings when South Africa, 1-0 up in the series, had eyes on making the second Test a second-innings shootout, absorbing pressure (44 from 100 deliveries at one point) before finishing up 103 from 163. England, posting 415 for 9 declared, won by an innings.
That, along with the big-stage stuff of being the main man in a couple of World Cup finals, makes you wonder if the quiet at the moment is actually fine. He raises his game for the biggest moments, when he is seemingly the only hope.
Not all situations require a saviour. Superman doesn't rescue cats from trees. Iron Man probably leaves tax fraud to the IRS. You never see Batman slashing the tyres of a car parked on a double yellow, do you?
His team-mates have full faith that Stokes will produce another typically big performance when it's needed most. And heck, maybe it's overdue that they are stepping up while he takes a step back. That they no longer need saving, for the time being, is because he is working his magic elsewhere.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo