Ben Stokes finds right vibes with blend of craft and aggression | Barney Ronay
There are still some unchanging certainties in the English cricketing summer; many of which were on show on a humid, bellicose second day of this second Test.
Specialist wicketkeepers are busy at the crease, all bottom-handed crunch and ferrety shovels. Anything with the name Strauss attached to it will be accepted as objective, unchallenged gospel (call it The Strauss Hundred and we’d never have heard a whimper). Old Trafford will continue to remake the world as a series of red glass boxes, the compulsory template for any licenced Manchester architect. Perhaps the eastern stand, currently flattened, might bring something new. We might get a grey box or a green box.
And most certain of all, from the moment Simon Harmer’s first delivery was whumped with real violence over deep square leg an hour into the morning’s play, Ben Stokes was always going to score a hundred here.
Not just because of the simultaneous release of his documentary film: a commercial enterprise, but also a brutally honest thing that might just offer some succour with its unblinking honesty on processing life through the blurred lens of everyday mental health issues.
It is a new thing Stokes is doing. Has anyone at his level – captain of the national team, world star – been so open about how it feels to manage these demons, while also simultaneously enjoying the thrills of peak year achievement?
Towards the end of the day, as Jack Leach and Ollie Robinson batted on, there was even time for a wonderful tableau on the England balcony: Stokes in Lennon-shades, hair swept back, sipping unbranded water; Brendon McCullum next to him, all beards and shades and guns, hundred in the bank, game tipping their way, Stuart Broad, in sleeveless singlet also loitering (yes, Stuart, we see you), basking in the late afternoon sun.
Just blokes, dudes, cool guys being cool. Watching them was funny, fond and unavoidably cheerful. If life is a series of moments, this was a nice one for Stokes, one of those highs you’d want to fix and keep and file away.
More to the point, Stokes was simply due here with the bat, with a sense of destiny from the moment he walked to the wicket at 134 for four, the perfect moment to suck the sweetness out of the day, to bend the series back England’s way.
And from the start Stokes looked resolute. Up to this point his first summer with the captaincy, his first as a convert to the house of Baz, had brought a series of angsty innings, a man always batting in shoes three sizes too small.
This was something else: an innings of craft, give, soft touches, and moments of ball-appropriate violence. Vibes, energy, feelings, going harder: these are all good words. It is impossible, hearing them, not to nod along, to hitch the knees of your skinny jeans, to scratch at a sock-less ankle and feel an urge to share some man-feelings, some blue sky thoughts of your own. But those certainties are useful things too, and when Stokes bats like this he just looks like a wonderfully organised, classy, intimidating Test batsman. This felt like a note to himself. When he plays like this something seems to fall away. Batting, being Ben Stokes, doing this thing out there looks fun, generous and totally engrossing. We could all do with a little more of it.
Plus, of course, there was agony, mishaps, and jabs of physical pain. This is a man whose default expression has become the wince. Just before lunch Stokes collapsed turning for a second run, his knee locking and giving way, before eventually waving the physio away and walking back to the non-striker’s end; the kind of thing your 77-year-old dad might do when he’s painting the skirting board, before springing up saying he’s fine and hoping no one noticed.
With a ball to go until tea and Stokes on 98, blazing and flexing for the big interval ovation, Kagiso Rabada bowled an 88mph in-ducker that almost cut him in half, a more characteristic pose for a man who seems always to be in the process of checking all his arms and legs are still fully attached.
He got to that 12th Test hundred just after the break, driving a full ball hard back at the bowler and scampering a single. And with that the helmet and gloves were off, with a wave of the bat to every corner of a ground that has purred affectionately every time he has been in its eyeline. The hundred came off 158 balls, the second fifty from 56.
And that was pretty much that, Stokes skying Rabada to mid-off a few balls later and departing to a lovely rippling downpour of applause, familiar soundtrack to these long lion days of the Test match summer, so badly missed during the Covid years, and threatened now by the vagueries of change and the heavily marketed future.
This has been an excellent Test for the captain so far, with a cleverly lost toss, impact-wickets, good selection (dropping his pal Matt Potts for a better bowler in Ollie Robinson) and now runs. There was still time for Ben Foakes to bring up his own wonderful hundred, the best of his career against a high class attack, for Broad to come out and thrash like a bamboo screen in a tropical storm, and for England to build a 264-run lead and declare. But whatever the result here, this will remain a very Stokes kind of day.