IT IS the age-old question for cricket fans. Who is the best all-rounder in the game’s history?
The names of Sir Garfield Sobers, South African Jacques Kallis, Sir Ian Botham, Sir Richard Hadlee, Aussie Keith Miller, Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff, Indian hero Kapil Dev and now Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, are the usual names thrown into the mix.
For years, each country has been searching for the next Sobers, the next Botham or the next Kallis. To an extent Flintoff did the job for England in the early years of the 21st century but injury and off-field antics blighted his career.
Then in the 2013-14 Ashes series a new name came on the Test scene, England’s Ben Stokes.
Stokes announced himself with wickets and runs in his first Test campaign, including 120 in the third Test as England lost the series 5-0. He stood out as a player who would not back down from a fight and from that moment on, the New Zealand-born star has not looked back.
Stokes had a stellar 2019, during which he almost single-handedly won the ODI World Cup on home soil then produced a remarkable unbeaten 135 to help England win a Test thriller by one wicket at Headingly in the Ashes. The 29-year-old was named England’s player of the series, scoring 441 runs and taking eight wickets, as Australia retained the urn with a 2-2 draw. He capped off a remarkable year by being awarded the Sir Garfield Sobers Trophy for Best Cricketer of the Year by the International Cricket Council (ICC) and three months later was named the Wisden Leading Cricketer in the World for 2019.
It seemed Stokes had reached his peak, but a fantastic series in South Africa, during which he scored 318 runs and took 10 wickets, led to another player of the series award as England defeated their hosts 3-1.
English cricket fans thought they had seen it all from their modern-day hero but in the first two Test matches since the enforced break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stokes has remarkably raised his game to new heights. He could have been on a downer after skippering the side to a loss in the first Test against the West Indies at the Ageas Bowl, Southampton in the absence of Joe Root and his first taste of captaincy at first-class and A-list level.
But such is Stokes’ ability, he bounced back with another stunning performance as the hosts leveled the three-match series for the Wisden Trophy.
He combined with Dom Sibley (120) in a 260-run partnership to save England from 27-2 on the first day.
Stokes’ 176 in England’s total of 469-9 was in stark contrast to the way he normally plays, once again proving he could make most Test sides for his batting alone.
His century was his slowest for his country, but once again he showed his adaptability when asked by returning skipper Root to open the batting in England’s second innings. Stokes smashed 78 off 57 balls, including the fastest 50 by an England opener, to help set the Windies and improbable 312 to win off 85 overs.
The West Indies recovered from 4/37 and looked like stifling the hosts with a fifth wicket stand of exactly 100 between Shamarh Brooks and Jermaine Blackwood. But it was Stokes the bowler who came up trumps to break the stand, having Blackwood caught off a rising short ball by a diving Jos Buttler.
Stokes was asked to do a job by his skipper with a sustained spell of short-pitched bowling on a largely unresponsive Old Trafford pitch. It was no surprise that he eventually came up with the goods to change the game once more.
England went on to win the game by 113 runs and were once again thankful of the contribution of their star man.
“He’s Mr Incredible. I suppose,” skipper Root told reporters as he compared Stokes to the cartoon superhero of the same name.
“I certainly think he can keep performing at this level. I think the sky’s the limit for him really.
“To have such a complete game, and so many different gears at your disposal, allows you the ability to keep getting better.”
Earlier this year Stokes became only the second Englishman behind Botham to score 4000 runs and take 150 Test wickets.
The comparisons between Stokes, Botham and the other great all-rounders will continue but the way he is going, the one who holds the world’s best all-rounder tag at the moment has the ability and the determination to become the best of all time.
Sobers, in my opinion, still holds the mantle, with Kallis second. But I reckon Stokes is pushing Botham for the title of England’s best all-rounder in history, making him, in my eyes the fourth best of all time.
Some might say he has gone past Beefy already, but Botham’s 383 Test wickets still have him in front, I believe.
Stokes still can do better as a bowler, but his batting exploits alone would see him occupy a top-five spot in any Test-playing country in the world. In a world bereft of top-quality all-rounders, Stokes is a captain’s dream and Root believes, as I do, he can only get better.
Stokes holds the record for England’s fastest ever Test double-century, the fastest ever Test match 250, and the highest ever score for a Test batsman batting at number six.
He also holds the record for the most runs scored by an individual batsman in the morning session of a Test match.
There is not much more he can achieve, but Ben Stokes, it seems, will not be satisfied until he reaches the top.
If he is not already there, then he does not have far to go to climb to the summit.