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Intensity, responsibility and some of the old swagger: How Ben Stokes became a Test century-maker again

Tim Wigmore
Stokes hit a magnificent Ashes hundred at Lord’s, his seventh Test century - AFP

A week shy of two years ago, Ben Stokes made exactly 100 against the West Indies at Leeds. It was Stokes’s sixth Test century and second of the summer, and seemed like the latest confirmation of his development into a Test batsman - not just allrounder - of high class.

Not for a moment would Stokes have imagined what lay ahead of him before his seventh Test hundred - his next, indeed, in any form of cricket. Since that century against the West Indies, Stokes has got married and won the Cricket World Cup. He has also come through the incident in Bristol, in the early hours of September 25 2017, and an aftermath that lasted nearly a year.

It may seem remiss to bring up Bristol here, in the hour of Stokes hitting a magnificent Ashes hundred at Lord’s. But the Stokes who scored his seventh Test hundred did so as a profoundly different cricketer, and man, to the one who scored his sixth.

“It sounds silly but, could Bristol have been the best thing that could have happened to me? Who knows. But maybe in terms of my way of thinking,” Stokes told ESPNCricinfo earlier this year. “Thinking all this is going to be taken away from me might be the thing that has changed the way I do things.”

Since Bristol, Stokes’s training has reached new levels of intensity as he has become far fitter; Eoin Morgan, his one-day international skipper, has even had to tell Stokes to train less hard. Stokes reclaiming the England vice-captaincy, from which he had been sacked after Bristol, reflected his new and more sombre - and sober - spirit.

Stokes’s training has reached new levels of intensity as he has become far fitter Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Yet the change has been most obvious in his batting. Before Bristol, Stokes’s batting was infused with a buccaneering spirit, a zest for counter-attack and an utter disdain for the reputations of the bowlers he faced distilled in his audacious 120 at Perth in just his second Test. That century against the West Indies, reached off Stokes’s 122nd ball, was in keeping with the spirit of Stokes’s batting.

Now, responsibility is the hallmark of Stokes’s batting. In an antidote to the ‘that’s just the way I play' orthodoxy that permeates much of the England team, Stokes took 187 balls over 62 runs against India at Trent Bridge last year, when trying to save a Test. Throughout the World Cup, Stokes was more adept than any of his teammates at adapting when conditions demanded a divergence from England’s favoured ODI strategy, above all in the final.

Until he returned to the side early last year, Stokes had a strike rate of 99 in ODIs and 64 in Tests. In the 18 months since, Stokes has a strike rate of 87 in ODIs and 48 in Tests.

As Stokes entered the crease in the second innings at Lord’s, newly promoted from number six to five, he needed to summon all of this refined judgement and defensive discipline. England were 64-3 - soon to be 71-4 - in their second innings, a position scarcely buttressed by their first innings lead of eight. Continue their collapse, and England stood to effectively lose the Ashes.

In the 18 months since returning to the side, Stokes has a strike rate of 87 in ODIs and 48 in Tests Credit: ACTION IMAGES

And so, against Pat Cummins’s ferocity and Nathan Lyon’s turn, this situation demanded all of Stokes’s resolve. He had a dollop of luck too, with Australia not referring an lbw decision on seven. By the close of play Stokes had eked out 16 from 41 balls. With England’s position still imperilled in the morning, Stoke took 106 balls to reach 50, barely the time that he would once expect to reach centuries in.

Then, having shown the best of the new Stokes, Stokes showed that he can marry it with the best of the old Stokes. Stoicism was replaced by swagger; from playing attacking shots to 20% of balls before lunch, Stokes attacked 49% of balls thereafter. Nathan Lyon was slog-swept disdainfully for consecutive sixes, and then Stokes gallivanted into the 90s. A clip off Lyon - the new Stokes, again - brought up his century. The celebration - inward-focused, rather than exuberant - was in keeping with the new Stokes too.

A few minutes later, once Stokes had added a few imperious blows off Peter Siddle, England declared. Stokes bounced up the steps at Lord’s, his thoughts now turned to how England could pull off an extraordinary win. But, as Stokes ran through the Lord’s Long Room, you hoped that he allowed himself just a few seconds to soak in his innings, and all that had gone into it.