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Analysis

Ben Stokes resolves 'to take a few runs with me' in calculated but short-lived assault

Allrounder hits the ground running in first first-class innings since Pakistan Test six months ago

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
06-Feb-2021
For a few glorious overs, either side of an acceptable time to be waking up on a weekend in the UK, the 2019 BBC Sports Personality of the Year was just threatening to go loco once again; and give all of those disenfranchised voters of his, a rare chance to see him in full flow once more, back on the same rival terrestrial TV channel where so many of them would have witnessed his heroics in the World Cup final at Lord's. Alas, it wasn't to be in the long term, and by approximately 7.20am GMT, Ben Stokes had holed out to a juggling Cheteshwar Pujara at deep midwicket during the first Test against India in Chennai, causing a wave of the sort of early-morning disappointment more usually associated with the realisation that you've forgotten to buy any milk.
While it lasted, however, Stokes' 82 from 118 balls was invaluable and calculated - a formidable display of mind over matter from a cricketer, lest we forget, who had not played a first-class innings in exactly six months since been granted compassionate leave during the Pakistan series in August, and whose absence from the Sri Lanka tour meant that he had been permitted just five days of post-quarantine acclimatisation for Chennai's heat and humidity.
"I bowled, batted and did a lot of running," Stokes said of his unconventional preparation back in England. "That was pretty much it. Physically, it was making sure I was ready for the Test match, with workload in my body when it comes to the overs. And to be honest, having been around [for] a while and understanding what was best for my game from a batting point of view, I just made sure that I didn't overkill too much. If I felt good and felt like everything was going alright, then I'd just come out of the nets."
When compared to the exhaustive sang froid of Joe Root at the other end, there'd be a temptation to wonder why Stokes felt the need to get so rowdy so soon, particularly in light of Root's bold assertion at the close of the first day, that England needed "600-700" to be competitive in this first innings. Sure enough, they did manage to bat into the third day of a first innings for the first time since Graham Thorpe made a century containing a solitary boundary in Lahore in 2000-01, but they still seem destined to end up on the marginally shallower side of that ambition.
And yet, there is a proven method in Stokes' madness these days - not least against spin, for which his aggression has its foundations in a defence every bit as rock-solid as Root's. The confidence of his stride to the pitch of the ball may contrast with Root's predominantly back-foot approach, but there are few bats in world cricket that look broader at the point of impact than his.
But unlike Root, whose game is built around release shots - predominantly on the sweep - Stokes' defence has a violent element of attack factored into it. That's not to say it's infallible, and for the first hour today - one pick-up for six aside - he was kept broadly in check by his most familiar Test nemesis R Ashwin, who has dismissed him seven times in nine previous encounters, more than any other bowler. He had two other key moments again today, a flick off the glove that landed safe on the off side, and a fierce return catch as he drilled hard back through the line.
However, Stokes' confidence in his base does mitigate those moments when he decides to put the hammer down - such as in a thrilling second hour, when the left-armer Shabhaz Nadeem dragged his line wider outside off, and started spitting some vicious lifters out of the crumbling footholes. It was the earliest evidence of Root's assertion that this pitch would break up over time, but it also meant that for the left-hander, conventional entrenchment was suddenly fraught with danger.
Stokes' response seemed skittish at first, but it was replete with game-craft - not least his innate understanding with Root at the other end. A brace of boundaries in the morning session was the sum of the captain's intent, as he focussed on working the singles and letting his team-mate drive the agenda.
"Things didn't really change for me until those couple of balls in an over spat out of the rough at me," Stokes said. "And so I took a decision that, 'Right, I'm going to put the pressure back onto him as a bowler with balls that have done that'. I had to decide I'd rather get caught at deep square in the way that I did, as opposed to going back into my shell and being a bit defensive and spooning one up to short leg. I thought I might try and take a few runs with me before not the inevitable happened, but before I got out."
And Stokes did so with burgeoning confidence. Out came his sweeps - a very different beast to the surgical instrument that has carried Root to 644 runs in three Tests this year. A flog clean out of the rough against Nadeem, high over deep midwicket; a rifled reverse sweep for four one over later and another next ball to rush through to his half-century.
Washington Sundar was treated with little more respect when he entered the fray, as Stokes rattled along to 63 not out at lunch, more than two-thirds of England's runs in a wicketless morning session. He might have been tempted to wind it back thereafter, but with Root at that stage looking as entrenched as any England cricketer in history - and no doubt grateful for someone else to borrow the limelight after more than 1500 minutes of batting this year already - the opportunity to drill home the advantage was too good to turn down.
Such are the reasons why Stokes is revered by his peers as the ultimate team man. He will play any given situation with the requisite tenacity, whether that means clinging on for dear life for sessions at a time, flogging quick runs in pursuit of a declaration or something in between, as was the case today - a calculated upping of the pressure from a position of obvious dominance.
And by the end of his first red-ball innings since the opening Test against Pakistan in August, Stokes' first thoughts were not for any missed milestones, but for the net effect his efforts had had on England's victory hopes.
"I'm obviously happy after a couple months away, it's always nice coming back in and spending some time in the middle," he said. "But the most pleasing thing that we've started the tour off really well and I don't think we could really have asked for anything better. Win the toss, bat first and we're still batting on day three, so we're really pleased."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket