Ben Stokes is England’s Ashes MVP

Ronan O'Connell Columnist

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    Ben Stokes was England’s best player when they lost 5-0 in Australia four years ago as their highest runscorer and leading wicket-taker over the four Tests he played.

    That was in his debut Test series, and since then Stokes has improved massively as a cricketer to the point he is now arguably as important to England as their captain and best batsman, Joe Root.

    If that strikes you as an extravagant claim, consider that over the past two calendar years Stokes has averaged 45 with the bat and 28 with the ball in Tests. He has been two players in one over that period – a prolific top-six batsman and a highly effective pace bowler.

    Punctuating his 19 Tests during that time are a cluster of truly commanding performances with both bat and ball. Most famously Stokes blasted 258 from 198 balls against South Africa in Capetown, rescuing England from a poor position at 5-223.

    (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

    A few Tests later, in Bangladesh, Stokes produced a very different but equally important knock. He saved England from a likely defeat by scoring a gritty 85 on a turning deck in the second innings after his team had collapsed to 5-62. He topped off this man-of-the-match performance with six wickets.

    The next month, in India, Stokes grafted to 128 in the first Test, made 70 in the second Test and took a five-for in the third match. Then, in England’s just-completed home summer, Stokes scored two tons as well as an extraordinary haul of 6-22 against the West Indies.

    As a batsman, Stokes has shown the ability to either vaporise an opponent when England are on top or haul his team out of the flames. With the ball, he has become a man Root regularly turns to when he needs to conjure a wicket. Then there’s Stokes’ bravado, a character trait which is easily lampooned and derided but one which can be crucial to a cricket team, energising teammates when they are flat.

    There has been a lot of analysis about how England will try to maintain the balance of their line-up if Stokes does not play in the Ashes due to his alleged involvement in a street brawl. They will essentially lose both a specialist batsman and a frontline bowler.

    What appears most likely is that England will replace Stokes with a batsman, either James Vince or Gary Ballance.

    (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

    The issue then is that not only do England lose Stokes’ potent bowling but he’s also replaced by a significantly lesser batsman. Vince has averaged just 19 with the bat in his seven Tests despite all of them being played at home against the ordinary bowling attacks of Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

    Ballance, meanwhile, made an extraordinary start to his Test career, piling up 1019 runs at 68 in his first ten Tests. Since then, he has floundered, averaging just 19 from his past 13 Tests despite ten of those matches being in England. So during roughly the same period Stokes averaged 45 across all conditions, his potential replacements averaged less than half that despite playing most or all of their cricket at home.

    If either of them play in the Ashes and Stokes misses out, I would expect that trend to continue and for them to average in the Ashes about half what Stokes would. Now, a mathematician I am not, but to me that means that should Stokes not play, England will have lost one bowler as well as half a batsman.

    To further underline the value of Stokes in this Ashes, bear in mind he is the only cricketer in the England squad who has a better Test record away than at home. Stokes averages 36 with the bat and 32 with the ball away from home, including three tons and two five-fors. The ability to excel on the road is exceedingly rare among modern Test cricketers.

    To lose such a player in an Ashes series in Australia would cripple England.

    Ronan O
    Ronan O'Connell

    Ronan O'Connell has been a journalist for well over 13 years, including nine at daily newspapers in WA. He now traverses the world as a travel photojournalist, contributing words and photography to more than 30 magazines and newspapers including CNN, BBC, The Toronto Star, The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, The Irish Examiner and The Australian Financial Review. Check out his work and follow him on Twitter @ronanoco

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