He’s back! The ginger-haired miracle-maker, the swaggering game-changer, the un-stoppered bottle of pungent cologne that promises the world with a single whiff. Yes, against all the odds, England will be drenched in eau de Ben Stokes during the Ashes this winter, and a little goes a very long way.
Stokes has spent much of the summer bedding down, after stepping away from cricket to prioritise his mental health and to rest a left index finger that had been plaguing him since he broke it playing for the Rajasthan Royals in the first part of the IPL in the spring. There were hopes that he might return, but none of his England teammates seemed to dare to dream, they just wanted him well.
There could not be any better news for Joe Root than the return of Stokes, his very own once-in-a-generation all-rounder. The man is a walking top trump, outclassing opponents in every category, and beefing up England’s hand at the same time. He adds magic in the field, with those bucket-hands and fearless leaps; backbone to Root’s captaincy; a third wheel to the bowling, either in enforcer role or as a golden arm; and pizazz to the batting. Possibly more importantly in a series that is as much about mindset as it is about skill, he has the fear factor. In the same way that for years afterwards, England teams used to dine out on Headingley ‘81, so they can now whisper Headingley ‘19 in the vicinity of a baggy green.
No one who was there that August day, crammed into the leaping fireworks of humanity on the Western Terrace, or following events on television or radio, will ever forget the finale – an immortal Stokes, in an innings on a higher plain, guiding England to their highest successful run-chase of all time after being bowled out for 67 first time around. That goes double for anyone on the pitch, for poor Marcus Harris, who missed a half-chance at third man, and Nathan Lyon, fumbling the run-out of Jack Leach at the last. It was one of the greatest heists – and came only weeks after Stokes had done something similar for England in the World Cup final at Lord’s. A visibly shell-shocked Root shook his head at the post-match press conference in Leeds: “ridiculous,” he said.
Even before this summer, Stokes’ superlative career had operated in mega-chunks. He’d had breaks for injury, for nursing his dying father back home in New Zealand and, most seriously, after becoming involved in a fight outside a Bristol nightclub that left him in court on charges of affray – he was subsequently acquitted. England have learnt to live without him. But they don’t like it.
On the last two tours of Australia, England haven’t won a single Test, whipped 5-0 in 2013-14 and 4-0 in 2017-18. Stokes didn’t travel last time due to the fall-out from the Bristol brawl, but on his one previous tour in 2013-14 he topped the batting averages, scoring the only English century of the series, a maiden ton on a crazy-paving Perth pitch, and took 15 wickets.
There are caveats, of course. He is very short of match practice with his last game being on 26 July in the Hundred, shortly after saving England’s bacon and captaining a white-ball B side to a 3-0 win over Pakistan after the original squad was hit by Covid. On the pitch, the Australians will no doubt be curious to test his mental state.
But in the absence of the injured Jofra Archer, Stokes is the magic in Root’s back pocket. The pressure absorber. The touch-paper. In the man’s own words, “I’m ready for Australia.”