Ben Stokes has risen to the top of the Test all-rounder rankings and sits third behind Steve Smith and Virat Kohli among the outright batsmen. The challenge now for England, according to the head coach, Chris Silverwood, is to keep him there.
The 29-year-old’s performance during the 113-run victory over West Indies was always going to boost his global standing. Stokes batted for more than eight hours to make 176 in England’s first innings and then ignited the victory charge as an auxiliary opener in the second, blazing an unbeaten 78 from 57 balls.
Throw in 27.4 overs of muscular short-pitched aggression with the ball that delivered three key strikes, and the type of all-action fielding that saw him chasing a shot all the way to the boundary off his own bowling, and it’s little wonder that Ian Bishop, the former West Indies quick, tweeted: “Think about that next time you feel tired.”
Usurping Jason Holder as the world’s best Test all-rounder is one thing but his gains in the batting charts are perhaps more significant. Since the start of the 2019 Ashes the left-hander has averaged 59.38 and likely replaced Joe Root as the most prized English scalp for opposition bowling attacks.
“The stats don’t lie, do they?” said Silverwood. “He’s passing milestones and making records for himself. It’s our job to provide the environment where he can continue to do so. He’s on the crest of a wave at the moment so we’ve got to make sure he stays there and support him the best we can.”
Like Trevor Bayliss before him, Silverwood finds himself having to temper Stokes. But a full throttle approach to training is not being discouraged entirely, with the head coach pointing to an enlarged squad – England began with 30, now down to 22 – that gives the rookies a unique chance to witness one of the best firsthand.
There appear to be no concerns about Stokes’s fitness going into Friday’s series-decider, despite stiffness towards the end of the final-day victory. If anything Silverwood’s problems are trying to keep players happy, not least with the six seamers used so far jostling to make what he says will be England’s “strongest” XI.
Among them is Jofra Archer who, despite his high-profile omission after an unsanctioned trip to Hove, has now cleared five days of isolation and two Covid-19 tests. Silverwood insisted the slate is clean as regards selection but clearly it will need some silver-tongued man-management elsewhere if an instant recall follows.
Silverwood, who is expecting a harder, faster pitch for the second match at Old Trafford, said: “Firstly it’s being very honest and open with what we are trying to do and why. It’s very difficult to keep everybody happy all the time. [But] if you do things for the right reason, I think there’s an understanding there.
On Jimmy Anderson, who now appears in direct competition with Stuart Broad for a spot, Silverwood added: “He is a very valuable member of our squad, a world-class bowler and the best we’ve got. I wouldn’t say it is one slot, it is not as clean-cut as that. We’ll pick the best team to try to win each match.”
Meanwhile England’s white-ball players tuned up for next week’s ODIs against Ireland with an intra-squad training match in Southampton that saw a team led by Moeen Ali – named as vice-captain for the series – beat an Eoin Morgan XI. Moeen bludgeoned 85 from only 45 balls to help the side he was captaining to 325 for nine, with Jonny Bairstow earlier muscling his way to 127 from 88 deliveries.
Given the match was 40 overs per side, it was a mammoth total and one Team Morgan were unable to chase down, all out for 225 in 32.3 overs as Moeen ended a pleasing day with three for 40 from 6.3 overs.