Ben Stokes’s ODI exit could be beginning of the end for 50-over cricket | Mark Ramprakash
A week ago I would have confidently assumed that Ben Stokes would be fully committed to England’s 50-overs side, focusing on the next ODI World Cup as a reigning champion, massively motivated by the prospect of defending his title and able if necessary to take advantage of his position as Test captain to pick and choose his schedule to allow him to remain involved. His retirement took me completely by surprise, and is a huge blow for the team.
Apparently the idea struck him during the first ODI against India at the Oval this month, a humiliating loss in which Stokes was one of four senior batters to be out without scoring. The nature of sport is that when you win you often don’t feel the fatigue and shrug off your body’s aches and pains – but when you lose it can be as if they are doubled. That will have played its part, and clearly he has been struggling with his knee and not bowling his ration of overs as an all-rounder for some time.
What is beyond doubt is that England’s schedule is impossibly hectic, and not just for multi-format players. You only have to look at the team England selected for the first ODI against South Africa on Tuesday, where Reece Topley and David Willey were rested having just played against India. This summer has felt unusually packed but the situation is not about to change – I recently saw England’s schedule for the next 12 months and it is absolutely brutal.
If the priority within the sport is quality and entertainment, the best players have to be given the right conditions to produce their best performances – but is that the priority at all? It seems clear to me that for the people at the top of the game it is all about money. People say that Twenty20 is what the youngsters want, and without doubt the format has brought huge entertainment and given the game new life, but in the pursuit of profit it is being allowed to completely take over the calendar. The 50-over game, increasingly squeezed into the margins, is paying the price.
I am not sure what, if anything, can save it now. Too many games have been played on shirtfronts with balls that don’t swing, seam or spin, massively weighted in favour of the batter. When the balance between bat and ball is lost the result is poor cricket. It is a physically demanding game – you are often out there for nearly four hours in hot weather, and then immediately have to bat – and the best players in the world know how much money they can make doing much less work in T20 franchise cricket. It would not surprise me if the floodgates open now and after next year’s World Cup we see a string of big names choosing to step away from it.
For all that, Stokes’s retirement seems to have been accepted very quickly. England waited so long to win the World Cup, and now will miss his experience, his presence, character and skill as they try to defend it. Was there really nothing we could do to allow him to continue to contribute in some way in all three formats without becoming completely exhausted?
I do think we have not seen the best of Stokes either with bat or ball this summer, and perhaps a bit of time and space will allow him to bring clarity to his batting. England have looked a bit frenetic in recent white-ball series and Stokes has been particularly guilty: in the ODI against India at Lord’s for example they had three men out on the reverse sweep and Stokes still kept playing the shot, scoring a couple of fours but quickly getting trapped lbw. In the first innings of the Test at Edgbaston he was dropped at extra cover after a careless shot and just kept going; he was dropped again at mid-off and then caught there next ball.
Sometimes it’s like he is deliberately sticking two fingers up at convention and saying: ‘I’m just going to do what I want.’ But this is reckless batting, and if any other cricketer had done it they would have faced a torrent of criticism. Is Stokes motivated by what his team needs or by his own ego? The truth is he is a master batsman – the reason he was England’s player of the tournament at the 2019 World Cup is that when wickets were not straightforward he batted in a careful fashion and chiselled out totals. He seems to have forgotten that approach and has been selling himself short.
He is not alone in this. Liam Livingstone is the other obvious case, and needs to ask himself whether entertaining cameo 20s and 30s are going to keep him in the team. He might be capable of clearing the longest boundary but sometimes it is better not to try – he keeps getting caught in the deep and I feel he is a better player than we are seeing. He must know that there are ways of scoring at five or six an over without taking such risks. Of course there is room for power, but sometimes the team would be better served by the most destructive individuals toning down the aggression for a while and sticking around until the last 10 overs, when they can really have some fun.
Jonny Bairstow has offered an example of how with aggressive intent and conventional, strong cricket shots a batter can score quickly and put bowlers under pressure. When I’m coaching I talk about giving the bowler a small box – once they know if they drop the ball short they will be cut or pulled but if they bowl full they will get driven, they are left with a tiny area where they can pitch it without taking punishment. We have seen examples of immaculate ODI innings this summer but they have tended to come from the tourists – Rishabh Pant for India at Old Trafford, for example, or South Africa’s Rassie van der Dussen at Durham. Hopefully an England player will produce the next, but it is a tragedy that Stokes has already played his last.
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