Whatever happens at Lord’s we will always have Ben Stokes. That felt significant on a day English cricket was exposed as a sport riven by prejudice. Stokes, an immigrant state school kid with one GCSE in PE, is just the kind of anti-establishment beacon around whom the sport must rally.
England have an important Test match to play, which they can ill afford to lose. Yet, winning and losing appeared secondary as Stokes addressed the media ahead of the second Test against Australia. He didn’t say much, but in that characteristic way of his, he issued words to knock a wall down, the sentiment pure, the message powerful.
Stokes has already transformed the prospects of the national team. Let his example drive the reforming zeal expressed by the heads of the England and Wales Cricket Board intent on setting right the wrongs resulting from systemic failures. Stokes is precisely the kind of cricketer historically lost to the game. That he made it all the way to the England captaincy was not a result of an open pathway but a peculiarity of circumstance.
His father Ged was a professional athlete, who migrated from New Zealand to pursue a career as a coach in rugby league. In the distant north of England it wasn’t privilege that delivered Stokes to the game but chance and a freakish talent. That he cares deeply about the issues exposed in the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket report was revealed in a brief statement written in his own hand and passed to the England comms team only for polishing.
“Everyone has a different story to tell,” he said. “I am Ben Stokes, born in New Zealand, a state educated pupil who dropped out of school at 16. I needed help with the spelling and grammar in this speech and am currently sitting here as the England men’s Test captain.”
If that doesn’t shiver your timbers, nothing will.
Stokes had not read the report and chose not to elaborate further until he has digested the detail. As an alumni of Cockermouth School, a comprehensive in Cumbria, he is unlikely to need lessons on life on the edge, dealing with the consequences of underfunding and scarcity.
On the lesser matter in hand, levelling the Ashes series, Stokes was his ebullient self, confident that his team of right-handed seamers was the way to go on a Lord’s green top. Josh Tongue was the shock option to replace Moeen Ali, whose absence was decided by the pitch not his blistered finger. Tongue was preferred to the brittle Mark Wood and bowling all-rounder Chris Woakes.
Though 6ft 4in and capable of tripping the speed gun at 90mph, Tongue is a gamble, which asks even more of Ollie Robinson and the ageing power couple Stuart Broad and James Anderson, especially the latter. Anderson made plain his disappointment at his performance in the first Test, which yielded just one wicket. The lack of threat he offered on the final afternoon was a factor in England’s failure to crack 20 wickets in a Test for the first time in the Bazball era.
At 41, underwhelming displays encourage harsh interpretations. Another lacklustre contribution could see Anderson disappear from the northern swing in Leeds and Manchester. If that plays out, he might be done for the remainder of the series, in which case this could easily be the last we see of him.
Alternatively he might don the Superman vest and augment his numbers with a record eighth five-fer in St John’s Wood.
His first came on debut, the small matter of 20 years ago, registering figures of 5 for 73 against Zimbabwe. Despite being sent away to remodel his action, happily a failed project, he continued to rattle the stumps at a record rate, becoming the first bowler to take 100 wickets on the old slope. He has since been joined by Broad in that distinction but his total of 117 wickets remains unsurpassed.
The feeling in the Australian camp is, as you might expect, decidedly chipper. Australia left Edgbaston one-nil up with several big contributors seriously out of key. In the interim the players’ families have arrived in London further lifting the mood.
Ashes 2nd Test
Dates: 28 Jun-2 Jul
Start time: 11am
England team (confirmed): BM Duckett, Z Crawley, OJD Pope, JE Root, HC Brook, BA Stokes (capt), JM Bairstow (wkt), SCJ Broad, OE Robinson, JC Tongue, JM Anderson
Australia team (probable): DA Warner, UT Khawaja, M Labuschagne, SD Smith, TM Head, CD Green, AT Carey (wkt), PJ Cummins (capt), MA Starc, NM Lyon, JR Hazlewood
Umpires: C Gaffaney (NZ), Ahsan Raza (Pak)
TV umpire: M Erasmus (SA)
Pitch: Green. England’s all-seam attack tells you how they think it will play
Weather: 25C, cloudy. Rain on later days
TV: Sky Sports Main Event/Cricket from 10am
“I have spent a lot of time chasing my 20-month-old son around different parks,” skipper Pat Cummins said. “From Regent’s to Primrose back to Regents’. It has been pretty relaxed. We are 1-0 up in the series, so we’re all on a bit of a high.”
Australia are not in front by accident. They are a team of deep experience and proven match-winners, one that glories in the fundamentals of the game. There is nothing funky about this set-up. Blessed by a world-class spinner and wicketkeeper there is no need for compromised selections. Moreover they spun Bazball’s radical elements to suit them, turning England’s rapid scoring rate to their advantage, allowing them extra time at the crease to build an innings in their own sweet way.
Stokes has promised to go Bazball-plus to level the series, which, you sense, suits Australia very well. “I don’t think we played the complete game last week by a long shot,” Cummins said. “That is one of the most pleasing things, that we weren’t at our best but still managed to get over the line.”