The Year of the Stokes and cricketing Morse code
Cricket fans of a certain generation will be well versed in the subtle beauties of following a match on Ceefax. Whether a county contest or an international equivalent not covered by the beeb, Ceefax provided a series of rather staccato updates, particularly if one had a penchant for perennially pressing the update button. In hindsight, and in light of the advances in media outlets, such a method of following a match must have proved mind-numbingly dull but at the time the lack of any other known coverage (Test Match Special was either not on my radar or impossible to locate on a radio lacking the long-wave frequency) made the Ceefax option almost obligatory. And the tension created by not knowing what was happening made it all the more memorable.
Cricket coverage has of course moved on but if one is somewhere without access to a radio or is not a subscriber of a well known satellite television company then the good people at Cricinfo is the option of choice. One is still not fully aware of what is happening but the internet commentary at least provides progress from the Ceefax days.
Three days into the 2016 New Year the commentary proved most entertaining as Ben Stokes began a year that would witness his progression from precocious youngster into a full blown senior star. It all began with that astonishing innings at Newlands when the Durham all-rounder pummelled the South African attack (admittedly one sans Steyn and Philander but still containing Morkel and the raw brilliance of Kagiso Rabada) around the Cape Town venue. Context is of course everything. England had won the first test and was batting first on a flat track at the beginning of the second. Arriving at the crease with his team 140 odd for the loss of four wickets an immature performance would have left the visitors vulnerable. Stokes stuck to his natural game and brilliantly dragged England into a position of strength, ably supported by Jonny Bairstow.
Of interest is Stokes’ innings expressed in purely numerical form courtesy of cricket’s equivalent of Morse code:
..2.2……1.4….2……4..1.1.6….1….1…4.4…….4….1..11.1144.441.2..14111141…….(close of play).126.96.36.199.441…4114.2188.8.131.521..16184.108.40.206.12.4661614.4.1…..411….1.64.11141.1161..2.4.412.166.
Memories of one’s first discovery of such a creation hark back to Robin Smith’s brilliant innings of 167 (not out) in a one-day international against Australia almost a quarter of a century previous, as detailed in one of the cricket magazines of the time. Thus, Stokes’ equivalent proves as intriguing, the relatively pedestrian nature of the session prior to the close of play in stark contrast to the mayhem of the second day. In a world where television is so dominant watching the innings unfold via Cricinfo’s commentary proved incredibly exciting as boundary after boundary kept the England score rollicking along at an express pace. Imagine how astonishing such a performance would have proved were it viewed through the medium of Ceefax.
Fast forward nine months and Stokes and Bairstow were at it again. The circumstances were somewhat different; England were again in a perilous position, four batsmen dismissed for just forty-six runs, but the playing surface was turning and Bangladesh’s spinners were taking advantage of the favourable conditions on offer at the Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium in Chittagong. Cape Town and the flat track of Newlands seemed a world away. Just how would Stokes cope with such testing circumstances?
The answer is one of the most accomplished innings of recent times from an England batsman as Stokes produced a performance that was the complete antithesis to the breathtaking, cavalier dominance of the South African bowlers during those formative days of early January. Accumulating runs with aplomb, Stokes and Bairstow displayed maturity beyond their years and their attacking temperaments, as demonstrated by the Morse detail of Stokes’ innings:
Of particular note are two of the three sixes. The commentators on Test Match Special highlighted how Stokes brilliantly picked the right ball to dispatch; the isolated nature of the first and final sixes underlining the observations of those describing the action. Not the boundary fest that pockmarked the innings from the beginning of the year. Rather, a series of dot balls and the odd single before a most judicious decision to indulge in a modus operandi that is more of a Stokes trademark. Perhaps more than the batting pyrotechnics in Cape Town the performance in Chittagong proved that 2016 was Stokes’ coming of age year.
Indeed, 2016 could be described as the year of the Stokes. Whether it was the incredible batting exploits, that final over collapse against Carlos Braithwaite in Kolkata or the happy knack of taking crucial wickets the flame-haired one registered his status to be considered a genuine all-rounder. Almost a thousand test runs at an average an iota above 45 along with thirty-three wickets costing almost twenty-six runs apiece. In addition, an inaugural ODI century in Bangladesh was the high point of a six innings stretch in the fifty over game where Stokes scored 334 runs at an average of almost seventy with a strike rate a smidge over 100. Promise had morphed into performance.
Ultimately, Stokes is one of those players with the potential to excite, the sort of player that young kids pretend to be in the back garden. A large part of watching sport is experiencing our own dreams vicariously through the performances of the exciting players in the game. Ben Stokes has the skills to be one of those players whom ordinary cricketing mortals channel their own fantastical performances through. He has an engaging onfield personality, his heart-on-the-sleeve honesty and leave-nothing-in-the-locker modus operandi both sit well with cricket supporters in an age when too many sports stars have had any character or charisma knocked out of them by the homogenised nature of media driven professional sport. Indeed, his final over collapse at the denouement of the World T20 final may have proved gut-wrenching at the time but Stokes’ elevation to tragic hero status seemed to make him all the more intriguing.
Stokes will of course fail, fail often and, likely, fail ignominiously but one hopes that he is allowed sufficient head room to deal with such failures and permitted time to continue his development as a player rather than dropped from the team at the first dearth of runs or wickets. Form is temporary and class permanent after all.