England need Stokes, but not in this form

Watching Ben Stokes battle his way to a half-century off 102 balls today, you’d have hardly thought this was the same ground where England made batting look so easy just a few weeks ago when amassing a world record 481 against Australia. For Stokes, today, it was anything but.

Unsurprisingly, this was his slowest fifty in ODI cricket and was also the slowest half-century for England since 2005. According to statistics firm CricViz, it was the second slowest ODI innings of his career in innings when he has faced ten or more deliveries. He scored just two boundaries in 103 deliveries today.

A slow start was to be expected, and perhaps even necessary, when Stokes arrived at the crease in the 13th over after England had lost three wickets for nine runs to the left-arm wrist-spin of Kuldeep Yadav. England needed a period of consolidation and Stokes and Eoin Morgan provided that in a partnership of 23 in just under seven overs.

Stokes scored eight runs off his first 36 deliveries as he attempted to rebuild the damage but once Jos Buttler joined him at the crease, his slow scoring became less of an issue. The in-form Buttler scored 27 runs off his first 19 balls faced and they reached a fifty partnership in just under a run-a-ball as England started to find their feet again after Kuldeep’s earlier intervention.

Once Buttler was dismissed, however, Stokes failed to up the ante. CricViz data showed he missed 7% of deliveries, the largest proportion since March last year, and he visibly grew more frustrated as he kept finding the fielders. In one over off Umesh Yadav, Stokes picked out the fielder from two consecutive deliveries and threw his head back before feigning to smash his bat on the ground. He didn’t. But his frustration was clear.

To be fair to Stokes, he didn’t attempt a wild slog when under pressure. He didn’t try anything quirky or overtly risky. He kept batting time, trying – even if often failing – to rotate the strike, and at every opportunity, he ran hard. With wickets falling regularly at the other end, he really never had the opportunity to unleash. So that tactic was understandable. It was an innings of responsibility if not one of fluency.

Contrast Stokes’ innings with the performances of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma for India and Buttler for England, however. All three players proved that this pitch was a good one for batting, even if perhaps not quite as good as the one on which England reached their world record last month. There were plenty of boundaries for these three players, each of whom scored their runs above a strike rate of 90, and lots of singles and twos as well. This was not a tricky pitch to score.

After batting for such a long time, Stokes would have hoped to cash in at the end but he was eventually dismissed, shortly after reaching his half-century, in the 45th over. An attempted reverse-sweep off Kuldeep was snaffled by Siddarth Kaul at short third man and Stokes trudged off. That was in Kuldeep’s last over with five overs of the innings remaining. Should Stokes have just seen the spinner out and tried to make good against the seamers? Possibly.

It’s hard to say whether it was a poor innings from the all-rounder or the innings England needed with wickets falling regularly. Although the pitch might have been good, the situation Stokes found himself in wasn’t. Certainly, without him, the home side would not have got anywhere near a competitive total but if he had played with more fluency, England may have got far more than the under-par 268 they managed.

If Stokes had attempted to play with more abandon, however, he might have got out and landed his side in even greater trouble. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It was not an easy situation by any means. But this, for Stokes, cannot be classed as a one-off bad day where everything he hit went to the fielders or where the boundaries just wouldn’t arrive.

Last year, he noticeably kicked on with the bat. He always had the class but 2017 was the year when he started to deliver the sort of substantial innings his talent deserves. He averaged 61 in ODI cricket and 47 in Tests and his strike rate in T20 cricket was an impressive 147. However, since he came back into the England side after missing the Ashes, his returns have been down in terms of numbers and he has never looked in the same sort of form.

Last week, he scored 90 not out for Durham in a T20 but failed to lead them to victory after scoring at little more than a run-a-ball for his first 50 runs. After the game, John Lewis, Durham’s coach, said Stokes was frustrated at his own performance.

Stokes is, of course, working his way back to full fitness after an injury sustained in the lead-up to the second Test against Pakistan last month. It was the latest in a run of niggles which has caused him to miss or play a bit part in matches. Finding and maintaining form and rhythm is not easy in such circumstances and he was always likely to be rusty coming back into the team for this series.

It’s undeniable, however, that Stokes just hasn’t captured the same form with the bat which he had last year. And given England’s reliance on him in the middle order of all three format teams – he came in above Buttler here – both he and they could do with him rediscovering it quickly.

Of course, there is no doubting Stokes’ quality. It’s the reason England would have brought him straight back into this one-day side even if Alex Hales had been fit and despite England beating Australia five-nil without him. He is a top class, three-dimensional cricketer but he is battling right now. And he has been battling for a while.

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