Not even a near entire opening day lost to rain could dampen the spirits in Southampton, as England and the West Indies served up a classic on Test cricket’s much anticipated return.
Resuming after a near four-month hiatus and without the presence of spectators, cricket in a ‘bubble’ delivered more than what was promised in a stirring win for the Windies.
It was a clash which had been touted as a battle between Ben Stokes and Jason Holder – two elite all-rounders who led out their respective teams at the Ageas Bowl. The face-off between the No1 and 2 ranked Test all-rounders lived up to expectations, with both the captains chipping in with heroic individual displays in Southampton.
Holder was exquisite with the ball in England’s first innings as his six-wicket haul made a mockery of the home team’s decision to bat first on a moving pitch. Fittingly, the 28-year-old was on hand to finish the job with the bat for the visitors in what was a tricky run chase in the final innings.
Stokes, meanwhile, had an even greater contribution towards England’s cause and was unfortunate to end up on the losing side. The 2019 ICC Cricketer of the Year was at his all-round best in a Test where he aggregated 89 runs and six wickets across the two innings. His individual brilliance over the five days dug England out of the holes of their creation, but it just wasn’t enough to overpower a resolute Windies effort which was fully deserving of their victory.
That Stokes is England’s heartbeat was shown last year by his magnificence in the World Cup and the Headingley Test against Australia. Having been bestowed with the temporary captaincy for the Southampton clash owing to Joe Root’s absence, Stokes rose to the occasion in a talisman’s display with both bat and ball.
Questions will be asked of his decision to bat first in damp conditions in Southampton, as well as the move to omit Stuart Broad from the playing XI. While hindsight is a wonderful thing, the result could have been all so different for England had their familiar batting failures not come back to haunt them in both innings.
Though the loss against his name on captaincy debut will stick for a while, Stokes’ own performance in the Test is only worth of praise. It was a performance befitting of a talisman and leader from the champion cricketer who never stopped huffing and puffing in pursuit of victory. Not deterred by the responsibilities that England captaincy brings with it, Stokes instead raised his levels to even greater heights.
Like a man on a mission with a single-minded pursuit of pushing England to victory, Stokes gave a timely reminder of his genius as an all-rounder of enviable talent. As a performance, it was highly reminiscent of Imran Khan and Ian Botham at their peaks. If there were any doubts about his 2019 heroics being a flash in the pan, the Durham man dispelled them in emphatic fashion.
Stokes has hit his prime, and such performances are only going to become a regular occurrence going forward. Root will return to take his place as captain in the second Test at Old Trafford, but Stokes’ Southampton showing has definitely given the England team management some food for thought.
Although stripping someone from captaincy is never ideal, could England possibly unlock Root’s full potential as a Test batsman by giving Stokes the full-time job? To be fair to Root his record as England Test skipper isn’t too shabby, with the Yorkshireman managing a 51 per cent win-rate in his 39 matches at the helm.
However, it is his personal displays which have taken a heavy beating ever since he took over the captaincy from Alastair Cook in 2017. While his ‘Fab Four’ contemporaries in Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Steve Smith (before his leadership ban) have hit greater heights with the bat as skippers of their team, Root has gone the opposite way.
Among the four star batsmen of this era, it was Root who hit his peak the earliest with a brilliant few years between 2014 and 2017. There was a time he was considered as the best Test batsman in the world, and the right-hander even attained the No1 Test ranking in August, 2015.
Unfortunately, the Englishman’s rivals have left him in their wake in recent years and by some distance. While Smith and Kohli have constantly exchanged the No1 rankings between them, Root even suffered the ignominy of dropping out of the top 10 towards the end of 2019.
For a man who was averaging as high as 53 before donning the captaincy hat, his current average of 42.92 is quite the comedown. Another issue that has plagued Root’s batting as skipper is the drastic reduction in his century conversion rate.
Before captaincy, Root was converting his fifties into centuries at a rate of more than 40 per cent. Since being put in charge of affairs for England, that rate for Root has dropped alarmingly to 28.5 per cent.
His double ton in New Zealand last year was a fine innings, but such mammoth displays have been too few and far between for Root the captain. In contrast, he has been going from strength to strength in the ODI format without the pressure of leading the team. With Eoin Morgan taking the reins in the 50-over format, Root has flourished as a batsman who can hold anchor for England’s array of big hitters.
He has registered eight ODI centuries in the last three years alone, while managing just six Test tons in his entire captaincy tenure. His Test credentials cannot be questioned, given the heights he touched in previous years. He is a generational talent after all and is poised to be become the most prolific run-scorer to represent England.
It is whether he can produce those performances while burdened by the captaincy which is the burning question for England and the team management.
England will understandably be reluctant to rock the boat and remove Root from his position, but the manner in which Stokes took to captaincy in Southampton has given them an option should they choose to be bold. It is one which could finally see the return of a batsman who was on par with Smith and Kohli instead of one who has crumbled under the weight of the crown.
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