Spectator sport

Will Ben Stokes be the greatest cricketer of all time?

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

Feeling depressed about politics? I hope not. Politicians don’t shape the world: they are the furniture movers, not the furniture makers. It is inventors, scientists, philosophers, craftsmen, artists and poets who influence our lives. And sports people of course. Which means it’s time to think about Ben Stokes again. The Test Match Special lunchtime guest on the Saturday of the Headingley Test was Joe Simpson, ace climber and cricket-lover, and author of the epic Touching the Void. There’s not much Joe doesn’t know about coming back from the dead, and some of it must have rubbed off on Stokes.

The most extraordinary moment of that extraordinary innings came when Stokes reached his century. After hours of exhausting work, iron discipline and concentration, he barely celebrated. No bat-raising, helmet-lifting or exultant leaps in the air. A very cursory acknowledgement, perhaps, as he waved away Jack Leach who was coming to congratulate him. The work wasn’t over, Stokes was saying. This is about the team, not me, and there is more to do. Paradoxically of course, with just a couple of runs needed, he decided to go for broke, missed a massive sweep and would have been the most plumb of plumb lbws had the Australians not wasted their reviews.

Does this mean Stokes will be the greatest of all time? The comparisons with Ian Botham are interesting. Both men are fond of drinking and fighting, and maybe one or two other things in their youth. But Stokes’s work ethic is astonishing, whereas Beefy’s was practically nonexistent. So what makes a champion? Here is England fast bowler Mark Wood, talking to the BBC: ‘On a typical day I’ll do my bowling and then have about 20 minutes in the nets. Stokesy will do 40-60 minutes’ batting, then extra batting. He’ll do half an hour of fielding, then bowl for 45 minutes, then work on his catching or fielding. Touring in Sri Lanka, the hottest, sweatiest place to play cricket, he will then go back to the hotel gym and do 30 sprints on the treadmill.’

Phew! With all that, a fellow needs a bit of fuel. To be precise, £55 worth of McDonald’s from a Leeds drive-through after his match-winning 135 not out. Not all for Stokes, surprisingly; he was with four team-mates, including skipper Joe Root. Here is Wood again, on the Ben Stokes diet plan: ‘I have never seen anyone order as much food in a restaurant as Stokesy. There’s never a crumb left and if you try to take anything off his plate he will have your fingers off. He’s like Joey from Friends — Stokesy doesn’t share food.’

Now the fast-food outlets of Manchester, and soon south London, will be enjoying the Ben Stokes experience. As well as the millions of us privileged to see one of the greatest sportspeople of all time achieve the unachievable.

At least a fair number of us can watch the Ashes. I don’t know anyone who is watching the US Open tennis. It’s on Amazon Prime but I’m damned if I can work out how to see it on TV. I can just about get it on my phone, but who wants to watch tennis on a phone? Sport should beware surrendering all to the highest bidder.

What we can glean from Flushing Meadows is that maybe the march of the golden oldies may be slowing up. Though what does it say about Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic  that the Serb is a serial withdrawer during matches (six times now in Slams; 13 times overall) while the Fed has never withdrawn during a singles in nearly 1,500 matches? It’s just one more statistic that sets the Fed apart from his greatest rivals: a man meticulous in all things; not just the perfection of his strokes, but also knowing precisely what he is capable of. Even though beating Grigor Dimitrov with a back strain was not one of those things.

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