Since Ben Stokes made his debut against Australia at Adelaide for the second Test of the 2013/14 Ashes, he has been massively exciting. Having a top six batsman who can score blistering hundreds and then bowl 90mph rockets is understandably attractive. England cricket fans will dine out of stories of “Beefy” Botham and “Freddie” Flintoff for years to come, and as soon as Stokes started creating buzz around his performances back in 2009 people were giddy about his all-round ability and there were dreams of him being as good as those two illustrious fore-bearers.
Stokes’s debut came when Jonathan Trott went home from that ill-fated Australian tour, and while Gary Ballance would have been a more like-for-like replacement, the England management saw it as the perfect opportunity to get Stokes into the team. His first-class numbers in the two seasons before his selection weren't remarkable, an average of 30 with the bat and 24 with the ball over the 2012 and 2013 season showed promise but didn't present a compelling case for selection, however, the potential was obvious for all to see.
So it was into the cauldron of an away Ashes series that Stokes was thrown, and as is typical of this remarkable character, he thrived. In a series that was beset by disaster, intrigue and childish squabbling, the only highlight was Stokes. He made a hundred in his second Test at Perth as the rest of the top order tamely surrendered to Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris. Stokes stood firm as he made 120 in the second innings.
His bowling impressed in that first series as well, he claimed 15 wickets at an average of 32 to go with his 279 runs at 34. Stokes struggled in the summer of 2014 as he failed to live up to his brilliant start and eventually he was left out of the World Cup squad in 2015 after a string of low scores. Even then there was real disappointment at his omission. Even an out of form Ben Stokes was more exciting than that woeful England ODI team.
Along with intermittent form, Stokes has had his injury issues over the years, perhaps the most famous of those came in the West Indies in March 2014. It was just months after the tour of Australia where he had been so successful, but Stokes was struggling. Annoyed at his first ball dismissal by Krishmar Santokie he punched a locker in the dressing room and broke his hand. He missed the World T20 in Bangladesh as a result.
This is Stokes - at his best he inspires, at his worst he infuriates. When he is on song, like when he blasted 258 from 198 balls against South Africa in Cape Town Test, he is the equal of any batsman in the world. When he fails he does so just as spectacularly, often looking like a completely different player as he gropes for the ball outside his off stump.
In the summer of 2014 he played in two Tests against India and scored three consecutive ducks. Stokes could well spend his entire career with a batting average of around 35 and still play 100 Tests. He will always be backed because when it comes off he will win you a match on his own and in quick time as well.
Over the last 12 months there have been some signs of increased consistency, especially in ODIs where for a long time the idea of Ben Stokes was a lot better than the reality. He is less fiery than he was when he was punching West Indian storage cupboards, and a much more mature character than the one who was sent home in disgrace from an England Lions tour in February 2013 when he ignored warnings not to go out drinking and did just that.
On the tour of Bangladesh that led up to this visit to India he showed what he could do in Asian conditions. He scored a counter-punching 85 in the first Test, also taking six wickets including a brilliant second innings performance that saw him take 4 for 26 as England came back from a tricky position to win the first Test. Across the two Tests in Bangladesh he took 11 wickets at an average 10.09. England will need something similar in India.
If England are going to be as successful as the Andy Flower era team that won the Ashes home and away, beat India in India and reached number one in all formats of the game they need Stokes to make that happen. He can be the talisman of this developing side, a player that can be the beating heart of a young team that has some really exciting talent in the starting XI and on the fringes of the squad. While Stokes will always be remembered for his debut series, his Test career could be defined by succeeding in India this winter.