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Match Analysis

England's kingpin returns as Ben Stokes rediscovers his poise

Thrilling innings confirms that England's allrounder is back in a matchwinning frame of mind

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
17-Mar-2022
Ben Stokes drives through the off side, West Indies vs England, 2nd Test, Kensington Oval, 2nd day, Barbados, March 17, 2022

Ben Stokes drives through the off side during his 11th Test century  •  Randy Brooks/AFP via Getty Images

It was the on-drive that signalled that the old poise was back. Ben Stokes' innings was just nine deliveries old, with not a run to his name as yet, when Jayden Seales floated an inswinger into his blockhole and, blam, out lashed that signature stroke - a perfectly perpendicular push back down the pitch, with lines so clean you could serve a pint of Red Stripe through them. Nobody moved, nor had time to move. And no stroke that Stokes had played for 18 months felt so effortless and ominous.
For it's often assumed that Stokes, England's Superman, can just stroll into his mental phonebox whenever the cry goes up, and seize any situation through willpower alone. The truth has proven to be more complex, as his torrid recent experience in the Ashes went to show.
And for that reason, there is arguably no player on this tour more likely to have benefitted from the so-called "reset" vibe, given that Stokes needs nothing more than to re-frame those lofty expectations via a ground-floor re-entry to Test cricket, rather than tumbling at the last minute through the top-floor window, as he had done in October with his thrilling, but ultimately self-defeating, declaration that he was ready for the toughest tour of all.
Even before the Ashes campaign had exposed the fallacy of wishing oneself to full match fitness, however, Stokes' finest performances had long been the product of a surfeit of preparation - be it his unrivalled determination to bust a gut in training, or that uber-cautious calibration at the start of his Headingley epic, during which he eked out seven grimly chiselled runs from his first 80 deliveries.
And so, for the first hour of his innings in Barbados, it was as if Stokes was giving each of his highlights-reel contenders a spring clean. Dot … dot … hammer-blow through backward point. Dot … dot … rambunctious drive through the covers. In the Ashes just gone, he had set out his stall for a similar approach, but emerged with an average of 23.60 and a strike-rate of 42.06, as if his thirst for the hard yards had become an end in itself. On this occasion, however, with each of those explosions of pure muscle-memory, Stokes was able to confirm - to the jubilant England fans in the stands but most importantly to himself - that this time the real deal was ready to burst forth.
Afterwards Stokes demurred when asked if he was back to his best. "I don't know," he said. "It was good to spend time in the middle and get some runs, but you're only as good as your next knock or your next bowling innings. But it wasn't frustrating, I don't really focus on those kind of things. I just want to put in match-winning performances and they aren't always making hundreds or taking five-fors."
Ironically, it was the least well-timed of Stokes' 17 boundaries that convinced him he was ready to go loco. After easing along to a sedate 23 from 55 balls, Stokes plinked a drive through mid-off from Alzarri Joseph, looked askance at the inner edge of his blade, and figured, "that'll do". In a sudden thrash of willow, he smashed 66 from his next 37 balls, including three sixes in four overs to put the "maul" into Veerasammy Permaul's figures, and a preposterous one-legged swipe over long-on as Joseph was pounded from the attack in a 20-run over.
In truth, after the mental turmoil that devoured his 2021, it had already been apparent that Stokes' game-brain was back where it belongs. In words and deeds, he had repeatedly laid bare his determination to dig deeper - from his withdrawal from the IPL mega-auction because "Test cricket is the number one priority" to his post-Ashes self-admonishment for "letting people down", and all the way through to his preposterous workload on a dead deck in Antigua - 28 overs in the first innings, and 41 all told, all while allegedly convalescing after a side strain.
But this was the performance that assuaged all the doubts. Stokes' 11th Test century was his first since July 2020, also against West Indies, when he lit up that summer's second Test at Old Trafford with quite possibly the most remarkable all-round display of his career - an eight-hour 176 in the first innings; 78 not out from 57 balls as a declaration-seeking opener in the second, and a crucial partnership-breaking role across both bowling stints in a hard-fought fifth-day win.
At that precise moment, Stokes was at the absolute zenith of his game - a player unsated by his transcendent summer of 2019 and, with five remarkable hundreds in the space of the preceding 12 months, seemingly focused on becoming the best pure batter in Test cricket, let alone the premier allrounder.
But then, within the month, Stokes was flying back to New Zealand on an indefinite career break, as his father Ged succumbed to brain cancer, and though he returned to England colours in India the following spring, a subdued display gave way to a badly broken finger in his opening match of the subsequent IPL - an injury so problematic that he genuinely feared he might never play again.
His Ashes struggles were just a glimpse into the well - they gave no real hint as to quite how deep Stokes' despair had run during his months on the sidelines. And so all manner of competing emotions would have tumbled through his mind as he nudged that landmark single into the covers, and after gesturing with that familiar crooked-finger salute to his departed father, he fell into the embrace of his team-mate Jonny Bairstow - a man whose memories of his own father have been such a driving force throughout his own career, not least during his own emotional century at Cape Town in 2016, when he and Stokes had added 399 for the sixth wicket.
"He just said 'take it all in lad', in his nice Yorkie accent," Stokes said of his team-mate's reaction. "Me and Jonny have been with each other quite a lot in the middle, when one of us has got to a milestone, same as Rooty.
"In India I got 99 [in the second ODI in Pune] and it was a bit of a dagger in the heart but it was nice to get there and remember him that way. I don't like to speak selfishly, but it was a nice feeling out there, to look up to the sky."
There are caveats galore to be factored into this England display, of course. This Barbados deck has been grotesquely flat, and the depths to which the team's Test fortunes have plummeted in the past year cannot be glossed over by a few cheap runs in the sun. That said, England now have five centuries in three innings on this tour - which is just two shy of their tally for the whole of 2021. And their kingpin is back where he belongs, dictating Test agendas as if he'd never been away.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket