Ben Stokes appears to be reaching his golden age, but how does he stack up against his celebrated predecessors? | ESPNcricinfo.com

Three different generations, three forces of nature. Three men with the priceless ability to bend cricket matches through their will to win, and through their extraordinary range of skills with bat, ball and in the field.
Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff and now Ben Stokes share more than just the epithet of great England allrounder. They share a buccaneering approach to their cricket that transcends mere statistics. If, in the oft-quoted words of Graham Gooch, Test-match run-scoring is “not how, but how many”, then the defining feats of these three have tended to pivot on the key question “when?” and the baffled exclamation “what?!”
For we are talking about players who manipulate emotions in the big moments as much as they rack up numbers across a completed body of work. What did it feel like to be a spectator at Edgbaston when Andrew Flintoff ripped that vicious outswinger off the edge of Ricky Ponting’s bat to send a surge of optimism through a hitherto tense stadium? And how did it feel to be a member of Australia’s dressing-room when Ian Botham started firing up his greatest hits on the Ashes tour of 1986-87: that century at Brisbane, that preposterous five-for at Melbourne, torn intercostal muscle and all?
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And now that we have reached a period that will surely come to be viewed as Stokes’ own golden age, what unquantifiable impact does his presence have on each contest that he seeks to make his own? Was it inevitable that he’d make the difference with the decisive wickets on that final day at Cape Town? Not necessarily. But as soon as he took the ball for that critical final spell, did the participants – playing and viewing alike – shuffle that little bit further forward in their seats in anticipation? Indubitably.
None of this, however, is truly visible in the trio’s career figures which, though outrageously good by the standards of most cricketers, fall short of sublime when viewed as their individual components.
Of the three, no one averages more with the bat than Stokes’ current mark of 36.12, or less with the ball than Botham’s final figure of 28.40 – while Flintoff didn’t even finish his Test career with that ultimate seal of allrounder status, a batting average (31.77) higher than his bowling mark (32.78). In fact, by that rationale, none of the trio has a greater record than the great forgotten member of England’s all-round elite, Tony Greig (40.43 and 32.20), whose defection to Kerry Packer cut short a career that might otherwise have deserved to be mentioned in the same breath.
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Compare that range of numbers to the single-discipline mastery achieved by many of the greatest allrounders from other nations: from Garry Sobers and Jacques Kallis with the bat (57.78 and 55.37 respectively), to Richard Hadlee and Imran Khan with the ball (22.29 and 22.81), and you might even try to argue that they all failed to achieve their full potential. Though perhaps not to their faces
And so instead, here’s an attempt to rationalise their contributions, and shed some light on quite what it is they’ve brought to their respective parties.
Peak performances
For the clearest idea of just what an impact these men have made when fully on-song, it is perhaps best to focus in on the indisputable elite years of their storied careers. In one sense, this requires an arbitrary cut-off – farewell Beefy’s Ashes last hurrah, and Flintoff’s last-ditch heroics against Australia, for example – but few can dispute that Botham’s best years extended from his five-for on debut against Australia at Trent Bridge in 1977, right through to the end of England’s home summer in 1982, which featured a career-best 208 against India at The Oval, and nine series-sealing wickets against Pakistan at Headingley.
By that winter’s tour of Australia, for all that he conjured another miracle finish in the three-run win at Melbourne, and went on to rack up a further three Test hundreds and seven five-fors (more than Stokes and Flintoff combined) Botham was just beginning to betray the signs of a player living on his past glories, as his figures for that final decade of his career, 29.00 and 37.84, attest.
As for Flintoff, the drop-off either side of his elite years is even more stark – prior to his recall in the summer of 2003, he was averaging 19.48 and 47.15 (switch those numbers around and there would be nothing left to debate). Then, from the moment he ploughed his ankle into the Lord’s turf in May 2006 in vain pursuit of victory against Sri Lanka, his returns drift out to 26.37 and 37.25. There were a handful of unforgettable performances in that latter period, against South Africa at Edgbaston and Australia at Lord’s in particular, but he also missed more matches (26) than he played (20).
And yet, for those glorious three years in which Flintoff was the beating heart and soaring soul of arguably the very best England Test team of the modern era (again, the stats might beg to differ, but can you not remember how this lot made you feel?), his impact was simply incredible – and greater even than his impressive figures of 41.30 and 27.78 would have you believe.
For a start, England kept winning – seven Tests out of seven in the summer of 2004, a first series win in South Africa since readmission in 2004-05, and crowned of course by the Ashes to end all Ashes. And Flintoff’s standout displays just kept racking up as England gathered a serious head of steam from what had seemed a standing start in the wake of their dispiriting 4-1 Ashes loss in 2002-03.
A barnstorming 95 at The Oval in 2003, including a ninth-wicket stand of 99 with Steve Harmison, helped to snatch a shared series from Graeme Smith’s previously dominant South Africans; a maiden five-wicket haul at Bridgetown in 2004 set up a first series win in the Caribbean since 1968. Back on home soil, Flintoff even managed to smack a six into his father’s hands (and out again) en route to a career-best 167 against West Indies at Edgbaston. And all the while, his bowling seemed to be getting quicker and quicker, and more skilful by the session, as he honed the reverse swing that would prove so decisive in that defining summer of 2005.
As for Stokes, his second coming truly began in an immense Test against New Zealand in 2015 – only months, remember, after he’d been dropped from England’s World Cup squad following a grim loss of form that encompassed a broken wrist courtesy of that locker door in the Caribbean. Stokes’ scores of 92 and 101, the latter beating Mohammad Azharuddin’s record for the fastest Test century at Lord’s, and three typically vital wickets on the final day, including Brendon McCullum first ball, secured a thrilling victory that laid the groundwork for England’s subsequent Ashes win.
From a statistical perspective, however, Stokes didn’t truly come into his own until the following year – his Ashes returns in 2015 included a run of 0, 0, 5, 15 and 0 (albeit in the course of four hugely one-sided games – two wins, two losses – which were unlikely to have been influenced either way) while his match-sealing six-for at Trent Bridge was arguably less of a game-changing intervention than his one-handed screamer at gully on the first morning – the defining dismissal of Stuart Broad’s 8 for 15.
“At the peak of his powers Botham truly was a class apart, quite possibly the best attacking swing bowler that England has ever produced”
But from the moment, at Cape Town on England’s last tour of South Africa, that Stokes belted that extraordinary 258 from 198 balls – a rare example of his very best coming in a context that counted for little in the final analysis – he has produced an unarguably consistent and world-class body of work: nearly 3000 runs at 40.38 and just shy of 100 wickets at 29.20, including seven of his eight Player of the Match awards – more than Flintoff managed in his entire career, and one shy of Botham’s “pomp” haul of nine.
And that tally, of course, doesn’t factor in Stokes’ incredible influence on England’s World Cup win. Whereas the careers of Flintoff and, especially, Botham were judged for the most part on their feats in the Test arena (until his final flourish at the 1992 World Cup, Botham’s one-day record was remarkably poor), Stokes’ priorities have been split across formats to a greater degree than any of his allrounder forebears.
It’s fitting, then, that his unbeaten 84 in the World Cup final against New Zealand – an innings as epic in scope as anything you’re likely to encounter in a Test match – was the performance that sealed him the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award, over and above even his 135 not out at Headingley – which might even be a genuine contender for the greatest Test innings of all time.
Impact on their teams
Talking of SPOTY, that most over-hyped of Christmas baubles, a word of warning to anyone who believes that Stokes has simply reached the level at which the rest of his career will be defined. It’s also possible that his ascent to national icon status will signal the beginning of the end of his glory days.
We saw it in Botham, who became public property throughout the 1980s – as likely to feature on the front pages of the red-tops as influence England’s key series of the decade, particularly against his nemesis, West Indies. And likewise, Flintoff – salt-of-the-earth Fred – became a polarising and contrary figure towards the latter years of his career, as his head began to turn from on-field stardom to off-field marketability.
But you sense sense that the same is not about to happen with Stokes. That is thanks in no small part to his brush with career oblivion at Bristol in 2017. At the time, his brawl outside a nightclub and subsequent arrest seemed straight out of the Botham playbook, but since his acquittal for affray, Stokes has channelled every ounce of his second chance into the betterment of his own game and, crucially, the betterment of the team whom he felt he let down so badly with his actions and subsequent absences.
Ben Stokes was crowned Sports Personality of the Year Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images
That was evident in the aftermath of Stokes’ most recent performance, at Cape Town last week, when he handed over his match award to his rookie team-mate Dom Sibley. As an isolated gesture it might have felt contrived, but it was typical of the man’s build-em-up attitude to team morale – it was also witnessed in the moment he sought out Jofra Archer ahead of the World Cup Super Over, and assured him – from rock-solid personal experience in Kolkata – that whatever happened in the coming six balls would not define his career.
That’s not to say that Botham and Flintoff were not capable of similar magnanimity – Botham’s role as senior pro and general media lightning rod on the 1986-87 Ashes tour was of fundamental importance to that particular team dynamic. But by and large, both were men apart at those crucial moments when their fame and their form started to go in opposite directions.
Relationship with captains
In the course of their careers, each of the three allrounders has come into his own under one particular captain. Botham’s best years came with Mike Brearley in the background, gently channelling his ego, while Flintoff was never better than when Michael Vaughan – a contemporary as much as a captain – was fine-tuning the band of brothers whom Nasser Hussain had spent the previous four years whipping into shape.
Unlike Botham, who never had a prayer in being handed back-to-back series against West Indies in 1980 and 1981, Flintoff flickered briefly in his stint as England’s Test captain, before everything went to rack and ruin in the 2006-07 Ashes. On the drawn tour of India in March 2006, he inherited a side shorn at the last minute of Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick, and responded first and foremost with a batting display of painstaking maturity, particularly in the series-squaring win in Mumbai.
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Only time will tell whether Stokes himself will be asked to step up to the role – his predecessors’ experiences would caution against it – but for the time being, his relationship with Joe Root is perhaps the most interesting of the three dynamics because it isn’t actually very dynamic at all. Whereas Brearley and Vaughan are widely recognised as two of the most tactically astute England captains of all time – and the only two men of the modern era with a greater than 50% win ratio – Root’s lumpen leadership has been in the spotlight for several months now, never more fervently than after a flaccid defeat in the first Test against South Africa.
And yet, with Stokes as his vice-captain and reputational gatekeeper, Root might just prove to be unimpeachable. Because if the Cape Town win proved anything at all, it is that the men in his charge still back him four-square, and no-one more fervently than Stokes, the official vice-captain – a position for which he begged for reinstatement after his post-Bristol demotion, largely you sense because he wanted the management’s blessing before he started throwing his weight around in the dressing room again. With the best will in the world, it’s hard to imagine Botham or Flintoff ever seeking permission to be boisterous.
Relative durability
One thing that goes without saying, being an elite allrounder is hard work. In 1980, right at the peak of his powers, Botham suffered a back injury that would eventually lead to an operation to fuse his vertebrae, and which gradually robbed his action of the lithe “whip” with which, in 1979, he became the fastest England bowler since SF Barnes to reach 100 Test wickets, in just 19 Tests.
And, as that gold-plated statistic shows, at the peak of his powers Botham truly was a class apart, quite possibly the best attacking swing bowler that England has ever produced – better even, you might argue, that James Anderson, whose defensive attributes (particularly overseas) have become a key part of his arsenal.
In addition to a formidable haul on home soil, Botham’s early record included eight wickets in Christchurch, 11 at Perth and 13 in the crowning glory of his all-round career, the Jubilee Test at Mumbai in 1980 – and when you factor in three centuries in his first seven Tests too, it’s debatable whether any player in Test history has made a more immediate splash at the highest level of the sport.
By contrast, Flintoff’s career took five years to take shape, as he battled initially with his weight before being waylaid by a hernia operation that caused him to miss the 2002-03 Ashes tour. And then, as his bowling came into its own, the rumbustious nature of his action put an intolerable strain on his left ankle and knee, which both underwent six operations in the course of a career that was cut cruelly short at the age of 31.
Stokes, likewise, is nursing a long-term knee “condition” – he underwent surgery on torn cartilage in 2016 – and at times in New Zealand in November, he looked close to needing another operation as England toiled on some of the flattest pitches imaginable. Already, in an England one-day side stacked with options, he has become a bowler of last resort – if Stokes doesn’t bowl on any given day, you can be sure that England feel in charge of the contest – and at The Oval last September, he didn’t bowl in either innings of a completed Test for the first time in his career.
Though recency bias might try to argue otherwise, there is simply no quibbling with Botham as the greatest of England’s allrounders. The sheer volume of his output – including a then-world record wickets tally and the small number of 27 five-wicket hauls – a figure that Anderson passed only last week, brooks no argument, and nor do the heights that he scaled when at his absolute peak. By the end of that Mumbai Test against India, his 25th, he was averaging more than 40 with the bat, and less than 19 with the ball.
In the course of his career, however, Botham did give off the sense that inspiration was everything – a notion that was aided and abetted by his similarly effortless contemporary, David Gower. As a consequence, England wasted a generation trying to replicate a man who broke the mould, and left a glut of talented toilers such as Derek Pringle, David Capel, Phil DeFreitas and Chris Lewis encumbered with extraordinary levels of baggage.
Ian Botham celebrates his brilliant all-round show with a drink at the Lord’s balcony PA Photos
Flintoff shared with Botham a capacity for large living that made him the life and soul of a successful dressing room, if arguably a burden when the party went flat – but it meant that, of the three, he perhaps burned brightest and fastest of all. If ever there was a summer in which to lay everything you’ve got on the line, then the greatest Test summer of all time is a good place to start.
Botham, for all his stunning achievements, barely laid a glove on the outstanding team of his era, with his only victory over West Indies coming at the 20th attempt, at The Oval in 1991 (though typically he hit the winning runs). Flintoff, by contrast, has the on-field handshake from Shane Warne to prove that, when faced with the biggest challenge of his career, he pinned the title holders to the canvas.
Stokes, in his less focused early years, looked set to follow his forebears’ examples to the letter. It’s easy to forget now, post-Bristol, that he was sent home from a Lions tour of Australia in 2013 for excessive late nights, only 12 months before returning Down Under as part of the full Test squad.
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And yet, the absorption of all those life lessons is where Stokes still has a chance to break free of historical precedent. At the age of 28, his dodgy knees notwithstanding, he is fitter and a more dedicated trainer than either of his two predecessors, and where both Botham and Flintoff were defined to a greater extent by their bowling, and therefore by the atrophy that such a workload entails, it is Stokes’ ceiling as a pure batsman that could yet set him apart in the final reckoning.
As a role model, he could do worse than study the late period of the mighty Imran, who averaged 59.69 in the final five years of his career – almost double his pre-1987 mark of 30.06. By that stage, of course, his legend as a fast bowler had already been established, but in ceding top billing to the emerging Wasim Akram, 80 further wickets at 27.52 did nothing to diminish his standing.
Stokes certainly has it in him to push for such standards. His technique, temperament and decision-making were witnessed in all their glories at Headingley, self-evidently, but given the imperatives of the coming years for English cricket, the character he showed in his stunning century at Perth on the 2013-14 Ashes is perhaps most instructive – an innings compiled, lest we forget, at the age of 22, into the teeth of a Mitchell Johnson gale, in only his second Test.
Australia is the tour that Stokes missed out on while awaiting his fate post-Bristol. It is where England return in two years’ time, when all things being equal – as a 5000-run and 200-plus wickets Test veteran – he ought to be in his absolute prime. And only then will we truly know what shape his legacy will take.