Roger Alton

The brilliance of Ben Stokes

The brilliance of Ben Stokes
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Test cricket, bloody hell! For years, it’s been getting the last rites – now it’s the most exciting way anyone can spend five days. The scale of England’s synapse-stunning victory over New Zealand at Trent Bridge is boggling enough: England’s fifth-highest run chase (299) and fastest ever; the highest number of boundaries scored in a Test; a 77-ball hundred from Jonny Bairstow; Bairstow and Ben Stokes rumbling along after tea at 16 an over – unheard of in Test cricket.

But it was about much more than mere stats: the feel-good factor poured out of Nottingham. This was an exuberant, exciting, free-flowing game, with players willing to challenge the traditions of how Test cricket is played. These are not your usual ‘Test’ batsmen, willing to ‘shut up shop’ for session after session, but hugely gifted all-round players giving of their best.

Rob Key, English cricket’s managing director, advised fans to ‘buckle up and get ready for the ride’ after appointing Brendon (‘Baz’) McCullum, a Kiwi, as coach, and Stokes, a man with a lot of Kiwi in his blood, as skipper. On the eve of Trent Bridge, Stokes issued a rallying cry which should be taken up everywhere. ‘At the end of the day, when you’re playing for your country, first and foremost is to make sure you have as much fun as you possibly can.’ Anyone want to quarrel with that?

He’s an extraordinary figure, Stokes. There’s a strong case to be made that over the five days, the key innings wasn’t necessarily Ollie Pope’s brilliant ton, or Joe Root proving once again that he is the best batsman in the world, or Bairstow’s match-winning slaughter of some of best pace bowlers in the world. Rather, spare a thought for Stokes’s wonderful whirlwind 46 off 30-odd balls in the first innings. This allowed England to gain parity with the opposition long before they otherwise might have, and set the pattern for their magnificent victory.

Stokes is a glorious combination of the best of British past – Compton, Botham and Flintoff rolled into one – but with a very modern sheen: tattoos and a millennial sensibility willing to acknowledge the emotional needs of his team mates as well as his own. Long may he reign over us.

The best elite sport should bring us joy: we got that at Trent Bridge and we saw it also in the clips of the great Welsh fly-half Phil Bennett in action, which greeted the news of his death at 73 on 12 June. Rugby is not for everyone but Bennett lit up the sport for people who had shown no interest: you went to a match to see him, not necessarily the game. He may have looked like a low-level tax inspector, but he was a fleet-footed rugby genius who dominated his sport like few before or since.

He was a small guy, only 5ft 7in, but on the field he could dance like a butterfly. Delicate in his movements, fast as lightning, and with a sidestep that mesmerised opponents, you never knew where he would go next. He was at the heart of the great Welsh teams of the 1970s, and the most exciting no. 10 most of us have ever seen. His career was crowned by the famous try for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973: Gareth Edwards may have scored it but the try belonged to Bennett. His feints and sidesteps from his own try line left the New Zealand back row literally on the floor, opening up the field for that glorious try.

He was funny too: my friend the great sports writer John Edwards ran into him in Cardiff on the eve of an international. Wales were going through a dismal Six Nations, the golden era long over. ‘You should have brought your boots Phil,’ said Edwards. ‘So should you, John,’ said Bennett. That’s how bad Wales were. We won’t see his like again.

Written byRoger Alton

Roger Alton is a former editor of the Observer and the Independent. He writes the Spectator Sport column.

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