Spectator sport

Add Ben Stokes to the world’s greatest batsmen

7 January 2016

3:00 PM

7 January 2016

3:00 PM

On Sunday morning a friend texted: ‘You watching the big bash, or the domestic stuff down in Australia?’ On one channel, you could be in Cape Town as Ben Stokes slaughtered the bowling attack of the world’s No. 1 side; one click and you were in Brisbane at the Gabba to see the Heat play the Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash T20 League. What a joy to be in South Africa — well, via TV — for the most extraordinary innings of this century. It was quicker than most T20 matches and much more brutal.

I thought there were just three great batsmen in the world right now: Steve Smith, Joe Root, and A.B. de Villiers. With Kane Williamson thereabouts. But now add Ben Stokes. You would pay to watch all of them: but maybe now Stokes, like Botham, will bring the City to a halt as he walks out to bat. Let’s hope so.

If every day of Test cricket had a Ben Stokes in it, the grounds would be packed as Newlands was. But the crowds for the first Test at Durban were desultory. And if every day of Test cricket had Hashim Amla’s dogged 201 off 477 balls then even Test addicts like me might think twice before shelling out. In the final Test against India in Delhi last year South Africa scored 143 in 143 overs; yes a run an over. Amla batted an incredible 244 balls for his 25. At Newlands, Stokes’s 258 came off 198 balls. Outside the Ashes, even Aussie crowds for Tests are poor. Only in England do we deliver big crowds. It needs to be addressed or this great format of the greatest game will start to wither.

Meanwhile, Chris Gayle, the West Indies opener turned T20 cash machine, got a ferocious rollicking for some leery remarks to an alluring interviewer. He said Mel McLaughlin had terrific eyes and would she like a drink later? Not on, said a chorus of largely simulated outrage.

For heaven’s sake, Gayle is a graduate of the Tyson Fury school of political correctness and a man not known for his aversion to the opposite sex. At home in Jamaica he has a lap-dancing pole in his bedroom, mirrors on the ceiling and once said: ‘If you ain’t got a strip club in your bedroom, you ain’t no cricket player.’ Hmm, lovely. But what did anyone expect him to chat to Mel about? Chinese growth figures? Personally, I would rather this outrageously gifted player got a kicking for leaving the West Indies in the lurch, as their Test decline grows ever more melancholy.

Here is something to celebrate: in the top ten of the Premier League are Leicester, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Stoke and Watford. What a great time to enjoy football, even if a Chelsea/Liverpool meeting is just a mid-table clash now. Aren’t we all getting tired of the Travelling Wilburys of management: Hiddink, Ancelotti, van Gaal, Mourinho and the like? It’s why we admire Alan Pardew and Mark Hughes. Get out the rattles and rosettes and let’s be having you.

But I can’t imagine many women going weak at the knees over Pardew or ‘Sparky’ Hughes. Unlike Zinedine Zidane: news of his appointment to manage Real Madrid has made some girls I know start taking a keen and hitherto unknown interest in La Liga. Expect the viewing figures for Sky’s Spanish football coverage to leap.

Now here’s a tester for Eddie Jones, the new England rugby coach whose early days have been blighted by the usual cack-handed management of the Twickers stiffs. With David Strettle playing brilliantly for Clermont (as well as Steffon Armitage continuing to put in his usual hard shifts for Toulon) will Jones insist that he can pick the best players even if based in France? I hope so. And while we’re at it, let’s introduce a tries-scored bonus points system for the Six Nations.

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