It was the final delivery of the 62nd over in England’s innings on day one. Roston Chase was the bowler, Ben Stokes the batter. The left-hander was on 34 off 90 but he hadn’t scored a run off the last ten balls he had faced. So he decided to premeditate. He tweaked the position of his grip at the last second and began to take his front leg out of the way for a reverse sweep. But just as the ball started floating towards him, it became clear that it wasn’t an ideal delivery for a reverse sweep.
Now, the reverse sweep is a shot you have to commit to entirely. It has to be premeditated and there’s no coming back once you go for it. There’s no checking the shot once the grip changes. The first impression of that delivery was that Stokes was in trouble. It was like one of those moments when a batsman steps out too early and the bowler tosses it wide and you know what’s likely to follow.
The ball was heading in the right line for Stokes – it was to land on middle and off – but the issue for him was that it had too much flight on it... it would land too close to him. It seemed certain he wasn’t going to get the desired result considering the tangle he had put himself in. And the ball did do what it had threatened to all along – it landed far up the pitch.
When just as it seemed he had erred in judgment, Stokes brought out a weapon that has served him faithfully since the start of his career – his wonderful hands.
In one swift motion, he adjusted the weight of his body to give himself as much room, kept his hands close to his body, snapped his wrists at just the right moment, controlled the face of the willow, and met the ball with the middle of his bat. The fielder at point didn’t move as the ball sped past him for four. It was a breathtaking piece of skill.
The bowler stared down at the pitch for a while with his mouth open.
Stokes’ confidence in this high-risk stroke is such that deploys it even when the pressure is so high. Remember the shot he hit for six at Leeds during his epic against Australia? And so, it was fitting that it was this very shot he played later on, on day two, to get to his 10th Test century. It was followed by a now-familiar folded-finger celebration, that is a tribute to his father.
Intense as ever
A day before the start of the first Test, a video circulating on social media showed Stokes perfecting his pull shot in the nets. It was a simple drill – the balls were being tossed at him above waist height and he was giving them a solid whack.
But the catch was that the balls were being thrown one after another at a rapid pace. So Stokes had to be swift in his movements. And he sure was. He found the middle of the bat each time – even if the ball was aimed at his neck, his face or above his head. Each shot made that sumptuous sound. And again, those quick hands were doing the trick.
It was reminiscent of that famous Virat Kohli video where the Indian captain was absolutely belting it in the nets in Adelaide. There’s another thrill altogether seeing the big players work their magic behind the scenes.
It was this intensity that one saw in Stokes as he made his way to 176 with an innings of two halves. He was patient when he needed to be, he went hard when the platform was set...and at all points, maintained an intensity that sets him apart.
The current series is a significant one for Stokes. It has seen him lead in a Test for the first time. He got starts in both the innings in Southampton, and even hit some glorious shots on the way, but the big score eluded him and the West Indies went on to bag the win.
So, on day one of the second Test on Thursday, Stokes buckled down again. He was determined to stamp his authority on the series. He walked in at the dismissal of his captain Joe Root with the score being 81/3.
Another wicket then would’ve put England in some trouble, so he decided to bide his time at the crease. There were some edges, some play-and-misses, but the intent was unmissable. And that’s the thing about the big players; the purpose with which they go about their business sets them apart.
He reigned in his aggressive instincts to blunt the Windies attack along with Sibley. The first session on day two was all about consolidating the advantage. Stokes took 255 deliveries to bring up his hundred. It was uncharacteristic but it showed his versatility as a player.
And then, he scored the next 51 runs in just 46 deliveries. He had switched seamlessly from watertight defence to ridiculous shots to the boundary. That’s the other thing about him – his match-awareness is incredible. And unlike most other players who don’t adapt quite easily, Sibley included, Stokes can change gears without a fuss.
Stokes plays every shot with full intensity. It just isn’t in him to do it any other way. It could be a simple defense, a clip, a drive or a slog. Other batsmen may tap the good deliveries innocuously but Stokes will try to give a good punch to those as well. And this intensity is what helps such players put away the bad balls each time; they never miss out on scoring opportunities.
Great players make things happen out of nothing. They elevate the status of a match, pull in audiences. Ben Stokes is definitely one such player and he showed it again with a special innings.