Wisden, cricket’s annual reference book, has named England all-rounder Ben Stokes as the leading cricketer in the world for 2019. Few could find cause to complain, as Stokes’ World Cup and Ashes heroics not only brought England on-field success, but diverted the national conversation towards cricket. It is no surprise that he has also collected the ICC’s Cricketer of the Year award and was named BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
It is a truism at this point that Stokes is a cricketer of moments rather than stats. His test batting average of 36.54, and 147 wickets at 32.68 are good but not exceptional, and belie his extraordinary ability to produce moments of greatness. His knocks in the World Cup final and at Headingley in the Ashes were both moments that will not only live long in the consciousness of English cricket fans, but have imprinted themselves on the world game.
Stokes’ path has not always been so assured. Having been labelled a prodigy since his debut for Durham aged seventeen, Stokes’ career risked being defined by two incidents. The first was at the 2016 T20 World Cup final in Kolkata, where he bowled the final over needing to defend 19. He was hit for four consecutive sixes as the West Indies broke English hearts, with Stokes visibly distraught as final six sailed into the crowd.
Stokes missed the 2014 T20 World Cup after breaking his wrist by showing a dressing room locker his frustration at a dismissal
The second was away from cricket, when Stokes was stripped of the test vice-captaincy after a fight outside a club in 2017, although he was cleared of affray in court. Takes on this incident are numerous, but consequently Stokes could only watch as England lost the Ashes 4-0 in Australia. In light of this it became very easy to paint Stokes as combustible or fiery and, though he is certainly far more complex than this, he has a history of blow-ups. These include an occasion when he missed the 2014 T20 World Cup after breaking his wrist by showing a dressing room locker his frustration at a dismissal.
If anything, both events have made his rise to prominence in 2019 all the sweeter. Stokes has always come across as likeable, and his passion is ever-present when the same could not be said for some of his teammates. In the World Cup final at Lords, a top order failure meant the responsibility of the run chase rested on Stokes’ and Jos Buttler’s shoulders. Stokes did not disappoint, making 84 not out. Although visibly exhausted, Stokes re-emerged to bat again in the super-over. England won on count back; in the most important match of his career, Stokes was named man of the match.
Yet, in cricket, you are only ever really as good as your last innings. During the third Ashes test at Headingley, Stokes had contributed to England’s pitiful 67 all out after scoring only eight runs. England’s Ashes hopes hung by a thread, after losing the first test to Steve Smith’s twin centuries and drawing the second at Lords. Australia set England 359 to win, a feat that would require the joint-ninth highest chase in test cricket history. In any normal test, a team that makes 67 in the first innings does not make 359 in the next, but this was no normal test, and Stokes is no ordinary cricketer.
The innings is held in such esteem that the BBC have recently replayed the commentary of the whole four days of the test match
After only scoring two of his first 50 balls, Stokes began to pick apart Australia’s vaunted attack, scoring 135 not out to lead England to victory by a single wicket. Stokes’ innings was not without luck: his determination and ingenuity in the face of adversary demonstrated everything that has made him a great cricketer. The innings is held in such esteem that the BBC have recently replayed the commentary of the whole four days of the test match.
It is no exaggeration that last summer was the most important for English cricket since at least the halcyon days of 2005. A home World Cup and Ashes needed a hero to pique the interest of the cricketing and non-cricketing world, and Ben Stokes delivered. It is then no surprise that he was the first Englishman to be named Wisden’s leading cricketer since Flintoff in 2005. Many other cricketers have had great years, but none defined cricket in 2019 more than Ben Stokes.