Borthwick, understandably, is eager to succeed. At 23 years old, he is a leg-spinner making his Test debut against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground. England is already trailing 4-0 in the series. It will soon be 5-0. Stokes, also 22 years old and a teammate from Durham, is aiming for even greater success in just his fourth Test appearance.
Right before I bowled, Borthwick recalls that he approached me and instructed, “No matter what the outcome of this ball is, I want you to put all your effort into spinning it as far and as fast as possible. Even if it bounces twice, make sure it still spins. Try to bowl a Gatting ball.” I distinctly remember thinking, “That’s his mentality.”
During a disastrous Ashes campaign for England, Stokes managed to take six wickets for 99 runs on the same day. He had previously shown some resilience during the tour in Perth, where England ultimately lost the urn, by scoring his first Test century. In fact, Vic Marks even declared it as potentially the most important innings played by an England player in the past decade.
In the following month, it will have been a decade since that pivotal moment – a powerful and impressive fourth-innings score of 120 on a challenging Waca pitch – as well as Stokes’ debut in Test cricket, which occurred earlier in Adelaide. He joined a deteriorating changing room, where illustrious careers were coming to an end. Jonathan Trott had returned home after the first Test, unable to handle the mental demands of the game as a key player at No 3. Graeme Swann retired during the series and Kevin Pietersen was dismissed after the final score of 5-0 was determined. As one notable figure left the room, another entered.
Stokes struggled to find his place in the cricket world, spending his first home summer as a Test player trying to figure out his role. He had a difficult start, facing three innings against India without scoring any runs. He was also moved down the order in one-day matches and ultimately did not make the cut for the 2015 World Cup team.
In order for him to perform at his highest level, it was necessary for him to be placed at the center of the team instead of being pushed to the sidelines. During the summer of 2015, Paul Farbrace, who was the interim head coach before Trevor Bayliss was hired, promoted him to the No 6 spot. He proved himself by scoring 92 runs in a crucial innings against New Zealand and also hitting a century off 85 balls, which was the fastest in a Test match at Lord’s. Farbrace explains, “I believed that by giving him more responsibility, we would see a better performance from Ben. It was an easy decision for me to move him to the sixth spot and tell him, ‘You are our all-rounder. We have confidence in you.'”
From 2014 to 2019, Farbrace, the assistant coach of England, also encouraged Stokes to be free in other positions on the field. “I’ve always advised him to anticipate where the ball will go and position himself accordingly, whether it’s at slip, backward point, long-on, or deep extra cover. Use your instincts and don’t worry about the captain. Just communicate with the player and say, ‘I’m moving in here.’ The closer he was to the action, the more effective he was.”
Stokes is often associated with key moments, from the heartbreaking loss at Eden Gardens to the altercation in Bristol, to his heroic performance at Lord’s and brilliant play at Headingley, culminating in victory at the MCG. Despite a period of adjustment, his performances with the red ball improved significantly. In the span of 2016 to 2020, he played in 47 Tests, scoring eight centuries and taking 112 wickets, with a batting average above 40 and a bowling average under 30.
In 2021, he experienced well-documented challenges and took a break to prioritize his mental health. Upon his return, he has been praised for his leadership skills: as captain, he has led his team to 13 victories and even inspired a new word to be added to the dictionary. Seven years ago, during a tour of Bangladesh, Bayliss mentioned to the press that Stokes could potentially become a captain in the future. At that time, Stokes was known for being a passionate and aggressive player on the field, and may not have seemed like a typical England cricket captain. However, those who worked closely with him – including Bayliss, Farbrace, and the decision-makers – saw his potential differently.
His position as a versatile player has been weakened in the past year due to a troublesome knee, resulting in frequent hobbling while batting. However, he still holds a prominent role in English cricket. Who else would have the courage to leave a format in protest of a busy schedule, only to be welcomed back with gratitude a year later, just before a World Cup? Looking back, it may have been wiser for Stokes to prioritize his knee and sit out the upcoming Tests against India, but his value as a player was too great and the English cricket community is indebted to him. He can even reject a three-year central contract, knowing that a better offer may come his way in the future.
What is remaining for him? He has achieved victory in both white-ball World Cups, and only Sir Garfield Sobers and Jacques Kallis have surpassed him in terms of both Test runs and wickets. However, it seems like there is still something missing. A World Test Championship win would be satisfactory. Winning in India, where no visiting team has won a Test series since 2012, would be incredible. However, it is interesting to note that he has only triumphed in one Ashes series, the 2015 one where he played a supporting role rather than being the main star. Succeeding in the upcoming tour of Australia, 12 years after his debut, would be the ultimate achievement.