The level of expectation that this England ODI team have had thrust upon them is immense. At the toss before the first game of this Cricket World Cup got underway, Eoin Morgan, England’s captain, was asked about his team being the one everyone was expecting to do well. “I much prefer going into the World Cup as favourites,” Morgan said. This is a group of players who thrive on the pressure, who want to step up and be counted.
The person who grabbed this match as England as defeated South Africa in their opening fixture was Ben Stokes. It has not been an easy 18 months for Stokes after he was arrested following an altercation outside a nightclub in Bristol in September 2017. He was found not guilty in a court case that took place last August, but the incident still took a toll. He missed the Ashes that winter and had his reputation seriously tarnished.
Here he was, playing for England in a World Cup, his first for his country after he was left out of the squad for the 2015 tournament. It was the right call to not include Stokes in the 2015 squad, but this time around he can be the glue that holds this team together.
While articles like this one will mention that night in Bristol, it is all but forgotten. It is mentioned here for context rather than anything else. Now he is back to being a fantastic cricketer. He is a top five batsman and good enough to play as a fifth bowler, even if he is the sixth choice with the ball in this England line-up. There are few cricketers in the world who can bat, bowl and field with his amount of combined ability.
Having said that, Stokes has not had an easy time with the bat in recent times. At the IPL, he averaged just 20. A return to England colours saw him turn things around, with an unbeaten 71 against Pakistan earlier this month before his efforts in this match. A firing Stokes is so important for this England team.
This was not an easy pitch at The Oval. Its two-paced nature meant that batsmen who felt set would take a risk that they shouldn't. This is the reason there were six fifties made in this match, but no player went on to make more than Stokes' 89.
What made his innings more impressive was he came to the crease at a time when England have struggled while setting targets in the past. England were 111/3; they have, in past, stumbled from such situations to a total that has been easily chased down. Here, Stokes stood tall and got his team past 300. It still didn’t seem like quite enough, but perhaps that is because we have become so accustomed to scores of 350 being chased down with ease in the UK in recent seasons.
Stokes had the help of course. Fifties for Jason Roy, Morgan and Joe Root, all played their part, but it was that Stokes innings that held things together.
Of course, Stokes wasn’t done. While it was the serious pace of Jofra Archer that got England going in the field, picking up two wickets and forcing the retirement of Hashim Amla when he was stuck on the helmet, it was Stokes who walked off the field waving to an adoring crowd.
Ben Stokes with the bat, Ben Stokes with the ball, Ben Stokes on the field!
— Cricket World Cup (@cricketworldcup) May 30, 2019
First, he swooped on a ball in the outfield and a bullet throw ran out Dwaine Pretorius. Then he completely misjudged a catch in the deep off the bowling of Adil Rashid and as a result, he pulled off one of the best catches you will ever see. Running backwards, wrong-footed and with his right arm in an awkward position, Stokes took an absolute worldie to dismiss Andile Phehlukwayo.
Of course, Stokes wasn’t done. After that wicket fell, with South Africa miles away from the victory target and rapidly running out of wickets, Stokes was brought on to bowl. It came as no surprise that he took two wickets in two balls to seal a 104-run victory for England.
While Eoin Morgan may enjoy the favourites tag, it does not sit well with England fans, and Jonny Bairstow falling to Imran Tahir to the second ball of the match was enough to start the jitters going. The supporters need not have worried. England recovered well from that early wicket, set a competitive total and defended it with ease.
This side is really very good, it probably won’t be until they win the World Cup that anyone will fully believe this. Over to you England. No pressure.
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