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    Stokes at 100: England's captain makes the unquantifiable quantifiable
Stokes at 100: England's captain makes the unquantifiable quantifiable
Ben Stokes via Midjourney

Stokes at 100: England's captain makes the unquantifiable quantifiable

Stokes' decision to step back from day-to-day miracle-making has elevated his status within the team, which may have otherwise remained dependent on him.

On the eve of his milestone match in Rajkot, the man of the moment stated that 'One hundred Tests is just a number'. This sentiment is shared by many sportsmen when the Base-10 counting system intersects with what would otherwise be a random point in their careers, and they are suddenly asked to evaluate themselves.

However, few players can have expressed that clichéd response with more authority than Ben Stokes. He has proven beyond all reasonable doubt that numbers mean nothing.

Stokes' Test batting average of 36.34 does not fully reflect his impact on the game. He has a remarkable ability to turn matches around with his relentless bowling, often taking two or three wickets in quick succession. His importance to England and Test cricket is undeniable and goes beyond mere statistics.

Despite the complexity of the task, Stokes has managed to quantify the unquantifiable by identifying the one-percenters of inspiration that have contributed to his previous 99 Tests. This has allowed his genius to be examined to a greater extent than that of his England all-round predecessors, Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff, who were unable to replicate this feat.

He has achieved this by becoming England's captain. He has held this position for 21 Tests and counting, which is more than a fifth of his Test appearances. This is a significant sample size to extrapolate across the rest of his career.

Once, a breathtaking catch like Stokes' screamer at the gully that remains the iconic moment of Stuart Broad's 8 for 15 at Trent Bridge in 2015 could have been relied upon. However, now almost any aspect of England's Test cricket since the start of his tenure in the spring of 2022 can be examined - from the confidence he instilled in Rehan Ahmed and Tom Hartley on debut. Thanks to the resurgence of a previously struggling batting line-up, and most importantly, to the transformation of England's results from the nadir of one win in 17 that preceded this era, his influence can be seen in every moment.

Despite the shift in emphasis, Stokes remains the center of attention when necessary. This was particularly evident at Lord's last summer when his furious fourth-innings 155 almost snatched the second Test from Australia's grasp. He also indulges in Trent-Bridge-style flashes of brilliance, such as his critical run-out of Ravindra Jadeja at Hyderabad. But as a proud observer, Stokes' comfort in the reflected glory of a newly successful England team is becoming the ultimate testament to his influence and confidence.

Exactly a year ago, during England's tour of New Zealand, Stokes expressed a truth that best encapsulates his tenure. He has played a lot of cricket and achieved great things with some excellent teams over the years. As captain, he is determined to bring out the best of the current team and future players.

It was a statement of altruistic intent, demonstrating extreme self-awareness. This has been reflected in his team's subsequent displays. Stokes' praise of his teammates has boosted England as a whole. This includes the career stats that Stokes would not otherwise care about, proving his point. Although he initially played as a batter of last resort and even as a sacrificial madman during the early months of Bazball, swinging blindly from the hip to prove that personal gain was irrelevant in the new team ethos, his batting average has improved by more than two runs per innings since becoming captain. Despite his dodgy knee limiting him to only five wickets since the end of the 2022 summer, his bowling mark has slipped below 32.

Stokes' appointment as captain is the most significant moment in the journey of 100 Tests. It builds on past experiences, both positive and negative, to reach a higher level of understanding. How can one compete against a team that responds to pressure with joy? England's opponents, including India, are still grappling with the challenge.

Stokes, despite his disregard for the milestone, is only the 16th player to have played 100 Tests for England. This fact, as Stokes himself acknowledged, is evidence of his longevity. But when it comes to the successes of Botham and James Anderson, who redefined the parameters of the fast bowler's role, no one has had a more tumultuous journey than Stokes. His remarkable achievements have been accompanied by a series of significant setbacks.

Stokes has never explicitly attributed his extraordinary drive in the years following his acquittal for affray to the Bristol incident in 2017. He has refrained from using the word 'redemption' to describe his motivation, despite media speculation. This is evident in his exceptional performance in 2019, which has been widely regarded as his annus mirabilis. However, there is no doubt that Stokes' gut-busting display at Edgbaston the previous summer was a moment that deeply affected him. It was one of his trademark three-wicket bursts that broke open India's resistance and sealed a thrilling 31-run win on the fourth and final morning of the match.

It may well have been the end of Stokes' Test career. Two days later, he would stand trial at Bristol Crown Court with the very real threat of jail hanging over him, and when the Sky Sports cameras caught up with him on the sidelines in the moments after the win, his emotionally spent words expressed beyond doubt what he stood to lose. He doesn't know how to feel at the moment... Playing for England means so much to him, he stated.

There was unequivocal proof of the importance of the struggle to Stokes. In the following two years, he produced the absolute zenith of his career, just shy of 2000 runs at 43.00, including four centuries, and 60 wickets at 27.43. He also played a starring role in the 2019 World Cup triumph. In July 2020, at Old Trafford, he single-handedly squared the series against West Indies with twin scores of 176 and 78 not out. He batted as an opener and scored 78 runs from just 57 balls in a fast-forwarded declaration push. At that moment, he appeared to be ready to become the best Test batter in the world.

However, Covid-19 had already started to spread, and the speed with which Stokes' form deteriorated was both shocking and instructive. First, his father Ged died from brain cancer, a disease that took hold in New Zealand. This understandably caused Stokes to question his priorities, especially as England's cricketers were going above and beyond to maintain their bio-secure bubbles. After his tentative return to India the following spring, Stokes sustained a badly broken finger during an IPL fixture. This injury left him unable to grip his bat and fearing that his career would never recover.

The truth that Stokes has reached lies somewhere between these two extremes. Playing cricket at the highest level is a privilege that offers its participants the best that life has to offer, but it is not a matter of life and death.His experience in the 2016 World T20 final in Kolkata was no better. Carlos Brathwaite climbed through his guileless death to hit four consecutive sixes to give West Indies a stunning victory. It was a humiliation that would have crushed lesser players by the time Marlon Samuels finished his graceless victory speech.

Stokes can wear it as an affirmation of the emotions felt by rookies when it's their turn to be under pressure. He told Jofra Archer 'this will not define your career' before the 2019 Super Over, and now Hartley and Shoaib Bashir benefit from knowing the worst that could happen is walking tall among them and calling every shot.

This is not a new trait. Even before he became captain, Stokes believed that the England Test team's growth could not be achieved without supporting its seemingly less important players - even those who may now appear far removed from the team's values. In 2020, at Cape Town, after another three-wicket performance by Stokes, England won a thrilling final-session match against South Africa. Stokes insisted that the player-of-the-match award belonged to Dom Sibley, whose maiden England hundred had set up the victory shot.

Stokes is at the start of his 100th Test - a field marshal who has deliberately retreated from day-to-day miracle-making. This has enhanced his authority in a team that might otherwise still be in thrall to his genius and reputation. Every man in Stokes' midst is now empowered by the permission he gives them to go out there and be the hero of the day, to deliver the only statistics that matter.

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