The Ashes

Published on September 28th, 2017 | by Arunabha Sengupta

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Ben Stokes factor: Contemplating the Ashes without the maverick all-rounder

There is something about star England all-rounders with the ability to change courses of matches and history.

They are rare, extremely rare. They are gifted, exceptionally gifted. And they are volatile, very very volatile.

It is volatility that runs like a unifying peculiarity in all of them. Be it, Ian Botham, be it Andrew Flintoff, be it, Ben Stokes.

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All have been way, way larger than ordinary life. All have been incredible on the field. All have been nightmarish to manage off it, and near-impossible to control under the influence of alcohol.

Botham, now respectable and knighted, was legendary for his drinking exploits. From getting into fisticuffs with Ian Chappell to raiding John Arlott’s cellars of red wine in the Channel Islands, he has done it all.

Flintoff kept the fans interested and chuckling with his inebriated antics, very nearly leading to fatal consequences during the infamous St Lucia pedalo incident. He has often opened up about how alcohol ‘turns him into an idiot’, and how the abuse of intoxicants and susceptibility to depression have been as much part of his journey as hundreds and five-fors.

Stokes is a natural successor of the maverick duo. Like his illustrious predecessors, he towers above the rest in terms of charisma and presence. Like Botham and Flintoff he can change the course of a match in an hour with his bat, and to a lesser extent with the ball. Even when he stands in the slips, especially with spinners operating, he is a fascinatingly imposing figure. Perhaps the only slip fielder in the world to regularly slide in the outfield to retrieve elusive edges. He is one complete athletic package.

And he has had a long history of alcohol-related problems. In the early days, it started with being sent home for late night drinking during the Lions tour to Australia in 2012-13 and has culminated in the nightclub incident of 15 punches in a minute which casts a grave shadow on the future of his cricketing days.

It is indeed unfortunate. One does realise that Stokes has breached many forbidden lines cutting across the domains of discipline, expectations and the legal code. Yet, one cannot but feel sad for him and the game.

Because believe it or not, Stokes is actually a very nice guy. He plays the game to the fullest extent of his large heart, and he tends to be the protective buddy of his mates. He is someone who, when not in the strictest clear-thinking state, can cross various boundaries with the sole purpose of standing up for his pals. The video footage unearthed recently does show him in extremely murky light, but there are definite signs that he lost it when his friends were attacked. In a curious tale of contradiction, it is another face of this very ‘lead the counter-attack from the front’ attitude which has landed him the role of the vice-captain.

While the cause of Stokes the perpetrator perhaps cannot be unequivocally defended in this case, the cause of cricket certainly can be. Stokes is a huge, huge pillar in the English team. It is he who lends firepower to the middle order of the batting unit, ensures that there is an improving and more than decent fast medium bowler operating first or second change, and endows the side with a close-in fielder who can be frequently spotted sliding at fine third-man to cut off boundaries.

He is a player of immense value, whose very stature works wonders for the balance of the side. It is his formidable presence on the team sheet which makes the opposition recalibrate their normal strategy. And it is his fierce swings of the willow and his flaming redhead as he runs into bowl that keeps the spectators entertained and flowing into the stands.

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The absence of Stokes from The Ashes, if such is the outcome of the ongoing investigations, is going to cripple the English chances. England is a side that bats deep and has plenty of bowling options, and much of it has to do with men who are good at multiple skills. Moeen Ali, Johnny Bairstow, Chris Woakes and young Ben Foakes, all of them are handy in more than one department. But no one brings as splendid an array of differentiators to the table as does Stokes. Especially if one considers a combination of red-ball and white-ball cricket.

Besides, with Stokes out of the picture, the contest quotient will suffer a great deal as will the interest factor.  That is probably an even more vital concern in these days when the popularity of Test cricket has a constant question mark hovering over it.

One may be branded an irresponsible citizen in voicing such an opinion, but as a cricket lover one has to hope that the investigation is hastened to a closure and Stokes is sent on his way to where he belongs — in the great cricket grounds of the world, adding his unique spark to the game.

 

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About the Author

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Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and the author of Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets @senantix.



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