BEN Stokes had not played First-Class cricket before good judges were predicting a Test future.
HYPERBOLE is anathema to the wise old heads of Durham cricket, but even Geoff Cook and Dale Benkenstein could not hide their excitement when Ben Stokes burst on to the scene.
The Cockermouth-raised all-rounder was still 18 when he was handed a two-year professional contract, although he did already have a notable scalp in his collection, having dismissed Mark Ramprakash with his third ball in senior cricket.
Later that winter he made an Under-19 World Cup century against India. A First-Class debut, in the unlikely surroundings of Abu Dhabi, inevitably followed. He marked the occasion with a half-century.
In May 2011, Benkenstein paid Stokes what for South Africans is just about the ultimate compliment, saying: “He has all the ingredients someone like (Jacques) Kallis had at that age.”
Benkenstein’s comments came hours after a 185 the like of which the Riverside had never seen. Days earlier Cook, wowed by a stunning one-day 150 at Edgbaston, had said: “His talent is undeniable and he will be playing in a full England shirt sooner rather than later. Ben is the best player of his age I have seen.”
Considering the role he played in nurturing the likes of Stephen Harmison and Paul Collingwood from North East club grounds to international arenas, the excitement so unmistakable in the normally reserved Cook was noteworthy in itself.
If it looked like Stokes’ path to cricketing stardom was unstoppable, it has not proved the case.
Injury delayed his England debut – though only by a few months – but his time at the top table was short-lived and he is yet to play Test cricket. His behaviour with England Lions this month means that is suddenly not the inevitability it once seemed.
Stokes was on a tour of Australia designed to give the next generation of internationals a taste of the conditions England’s senior side will face in next winter’s Ashes.
The 21-year-old made little impact on the pitch, but plenty off it. Having failed to heed an earlier written warning, he and team-mate Matt Coles were sent home in disgrace last week after a drinking session. If Stokes is not careful, it could be the end of his international career. Hopefully it will instead be the making of him.
“The incident and the reaction to it is now history,” said Cook. “He’s now got to turn it into a really positive reaction.
“He’s been assured by the ECB people that his future with England is not going to be affected by it, so you’ve got to take them at their word on that.
“He’s got to get heaps of runs this season, and take wickets. The onus is very much on him. Obviously he will get lots of support from the club but it’s happened, and he’s just got to learn from it.”
England have shown this winter they would rather work with than discard high-maintenance players, but Stokes must prove himself worth the bother.
His brief taste of international cricket, in 2011, was underwhelming. In five-day one-day internationals his top-score was just 20, and his average half that, and he looked all at sea against high-quality spin.
His two Twenty20 appearances were little better. It was a little unfair of the England selectors – at least one of whom is a fully paid-up member of the Stokes fan club – to throw him in at the deep end. Stokes was playing just as a batsman because of a badly dislocated finger which left him unable to hold a ball.
The injury was the result of a dropped catch on the day of his 185, the worst in a catalogue of problems to have beset him. Playing as an all-rounder places unreasonable demands on a cricketer’s body, and alcohol abuse is well known for hindering recovery.
Stokes is still to have a full season of bowling – 2012 was the closest he came, and the improvements in that side of his game were notable, but his batting struggles against the moving ball raised fresh doubts about how he would cope against the world’s best at Test level.
That the conviction Stokes is heading for greatness has been muddied may not be such a bad thing. While South African all-rounders are compared to Kallis (pictured left), Englishmen are judged against Andrew Flintoff and Ian Botham. In shape, playing style – and perhaps thirst – Stokes is not a million miles away. It is a blessing and a curse.
“Every cricket team would love a top-class all-rounder because it gives options and balance,” says Cook, a former England team-mate of Botham’s. “Players who can do that are like gold dust.”
There is, then, a deep desire for Stokes to do well which goes far beyond his family. The danger is it becomes impatience. Flintoff took years and more than one dressing-down to fulfil his potential. “It seems as though he’s been around a long time but he’s still very much a young, talented man,” said Cook. “He’s finding there are various pitfalls along the way.
“When he does what he does, he does it in such an eye-catching way it brings a certain expectation, and that can rub off on the player.
“It all boils into that experience pot really, learning about being around cricket and living the life of a cricketer.”
Stokes has been handed a big lesson. If he learns from it, England will be much stronger for it.