Ben Stokes’ late order wicket taking exploits during the recent first test between Bangladesh and England at Chittagong prompted some mental perambulations. Of the six wickets taken in the match by the flame haired Durham native, five were of batsmen batting at number eight or lower in the order. The ignorant and the obtuse may well highlight this occurrence and question whether Stokes’ wickets were as hard earned as those from the top order taken by other bowlers. Cricket, and sport in general, is rarely that simple though.
Curiously, the currency of wickets arguably enjoyed a sharp increase during the latter decade of the twentieth century and the inaugural equivalent of the twenty-first as wickets became flatter, bats wider and boundaries shorter, adjustments that all favoured the batsman. Thus, one could argue that taking wickets became ever harder. Said phenomenon has arguably waned a little though as the influence of T20 cricket has seeped into its test match older brother; poor technique, general impatience and an inability to occupy the crease offering bowlers more opportunities than those of a previous generation. Nevertheless, the concept of claiming a few cheap wickets at the end of an innings courtesy of skittling out the tail has, in contrast, similarly become largely outdated. In an ever changing sport bowlers could no longer get away with only possessing one feather in their cap. Meekly surrendering one’s wicket became unacceptable. Teams slowly shied away from playing with a long tail, on occasion preferring bowlers who could offer some late order runs or, at least, hang around whilst a more accomplished batsman scored the runs. Even Glenn McGrath, the tail-ender’s tail ender, worked assiduously at his batting in order to eke out a few more runs for the cause. For the bowlers themselves, cheap wickets became somewhat more expensive.
Thus the current status quo would highlight that Stokes’ exploits in cheaply dismissing the Bangladeshi lower order was actually of greater importance and skill that it perhaps would have been decades in the past. The rapid dismissals of the last batsmen also kept another force in England’s favour. Along with scoreboard pressure arguably the most influential, non-tangible element of a cricket match is momentum. Had Bangladesh’s tail wagged and added fifty more runs then the momentum would have shifted in their favour, likely frustrating the England team. The total number of runs may not have eclipsed those contributed by the top order but the value would have been comparable. Instead, Stokes produced a vital spell that kept England in the driving seat and the momentum heading in their favour. Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.