It feels fitting in some ways that during a week that is hotter than Hades – when alarm bells about our direction of travel should be ringing even louder – Ben Stokes has announced his retirement from one-day international cricket.
Yep, the champion all-rounder who powered England to World Cup victory by the barest of margins three summers ago, in front of a packed house at Lord’s and with the UK’s largest cricket audience since the heady 2005 Ashes, has decided the 50-over stuff must make way. If not, his schedule as an elite all-format player would become suffocating. The hope now is that this similarly prompts a wake-up call.
Rather poetically, he will bid farewell to the format after winning his 105th ODI cap at the Riverside in Chester-le-Street, County Durham on Tuesday. It is the ground that Ged and Deborah Stokes used to drive their restless, sports-mad son to from their home in Cockermouth some three times a week, two hours each way, in an act of selfless parenting that lit the fire for a remarkable sporting career.
Ben Stokes, England cricketer and totemic Test captain, powers on, of course. In fact more so, in terms of where, aged 31, he wants to direct his energies. Modern all-format stars do not tend to jack it all in at once anyway, rather strip away that which means least to them and design their latter years weighing up health, wealth and happiness.
When they do so it says a bit about the player and plenty about the sport. And Stokes could not have been clearer about the bigger picture here, citing an “unsustainable schedule” and his fear of letting down teammates. For a cricketer paid by one of the boards responsible for this, to be so explicit in pushing back is quite the thing.
After all, in practical terms Stokes did n0t have to announce this right now, so deep is his line of credit. He averaged 50 with the bat during Eoin Morgan’s five-year World Cup project, is a genuine sixth bowler and fields like a demon. Allied with talismanic dressing-room status and, as England’s highest earner, he could shoulder arms to any series he did not fancy between now and the defence in 2023 and likely still command a spot.
Last week, as well as withdrawing from the upcoming Twenty20 series against South Africa to ready himself for the Test matches that follow, it was announced he would skip the Hundred this summer and his employers simply had to suck it up. No one batted an eyelid, nor would they were his ODIs to become fleeting.
But now was the time, like a leader, to take one for the team and give clarity in response to a fixture list that lacks anything of the sort. “I feel that my body is letting me down because of the schedule and what is expected of us,” he said. This announcement, decided last week but coming during a 48-hour turnaround between ODIs, was as sweetly timed as that famous swept six off Trent Boult at Lord’s three years ago.
Stokes knows his mind and body have limits. So much so he wisely took a four-month break last summer when bereavement and injury proved an overwhelming mix. Since returning to mental and physical fitness – both boxes not fully ticked until the tour of the Caribbean in March, even if he still grimaces in the field at times – he has become ever more besotted with Test cricket and taken on tunnel vision with it.
“I will give everything I have to Test cricket, and now, with this decision, I feel I can also give my total commitment to the T20 format,” he said in his statement. The latter’s appeal is understandable in the modern economic climate but, having passed up the Indian Premier League this year and hinted he will do so again before next summer’s Ashes assault, it is clear the type of cricket which is calling him.
The alliance with the head coach, Brendon McCullum, has also begun in quite astonishing fashion – those four spellbinding run chases in a row – and one could almost sense during these last three ODIs that this goal is now consuming his every cricketing thought. Put simply, the Test team and winning back the urn from Australia have become an obsession and Stokes is a character who is all-in when hooked.
The fear, of course, is that his broader call for a cleaner schedule falls on deaf ears. The ICC (aka the major boards) is working on a schedule that, while pruning back some ODI cricket over the next five years, features a global men’s tournament every 12 months. If the 50-over format is on the way out, no one seems to have told the organisers of the 2023, 2027 and 2031 World Cups, or Champions Trophies in 2025 and 2029.
Each of the ICC members will also jostle to promote their domestic leagues – but stop everything for the two and a half months of the IPL to keep their players happy – and somehow attempt to keep touring for their bilateral commitments, too.
But on Tuesday, back where it all began for Stokes, it will at least be a chance for the English game to thank the all-rounder for his efforts as a World Cup-winning one-day international star and applaud his burning desire to keep the flame of Test cricket alive.