Ben Stokes has led a revolution in England’s approach to Test cricket since assuming the captaincy from Joe Root earlier this year.
But the next stage of development for the ODI side that he dragged over the line to World Cup glory in 2019 will take place without the superstar all-rounder.
Stokes stunned the cricketing world by announcing Tuesday’s match against South Africa at Chester-le-Street will be his last in the 50-over format at international level.
An emotional farewell in front of his adoring home faithful in Durham awaits before Stokes returns to the business of England’s Test revival and the T20 World Cup in Australia later this year.
What it means for an England ODI team still adapting to a new era under Jos Buttler, following skipper Eoin Morgan’s retirement last month, is less clear, while there are serious matters to consider for cricket’s administrators both in England and globally.
Why is Ben Stokes retiring from ODI cricket?
In his retirement statement, Stokes made it clear he did not feel able to give his best across all three formats of Tests, ODIs and T20s.
“As hard as a decision as this was to come to, it’s not as hard dealing with the fact I can’t give my teammates 100% of myself in this format anymore,” he said. “The England shirt deserves nothing less from anyone who wears it.
“Three formats are just unsustainable for me now. Not only do I feel that my body is letting me down because of the schedule and what is expected of us, but I also feel that I am taking the place of another player who can give Jos and the rest of the team their all.
“It’s time for someone else to progress as a cricketer and make incredible memories like I have over the past 11 years.
“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.”
It is the word “unsustainable” that should boom out to anyone concerned over the game’s future. If the purpose of more matches, more series, more competitions and more formats is to get more eyeballs on the sport and to “grow” the game of cricket, then these endeavours are fatally undermined if they persuade a superstar and famously unflinching performer like Stokes that it’s all a bit too much.
The best players should be in prime condition and available to shine on the biggest occasions wherever possible and not, at the age of 31, conceding that “my body is letting me down”.
Last year, Stokes took time away from cricket for mental health reasons. He was also nursing a finger injury, but the relentless churn of playing series after series in bio-secure bubbles had taken a toll and he had been denied the chance to properly grieve the death of his father, Ged.
Throw in the added demands of Test captaincy and white ball World Cups in each of the next two years, then it is no surprise that Stokes sensibly decided something had to give. English cricket has had this in the post for some time.
Do England play too much cricket?
This is far from a problem unique to Stokes’ national team. South Africa’s decision to withdraw from their ODI series against Australia next January to give priority to a new domestic T20 competition offered a fairly stark demonstration of a cricketing calendar at breaking point.
The Proteas could yet miss out on automatic qualification for the 2023 World Cup as a result and this has been factored into the final decision.
That’s a shocking enough state of affairs, but Stokes’ retirement puts one of the game’s most recognisable faces on the problem. No innuendo about stepping back or focusing elsewhere; “unsustainable” is a clear message.
If you look at England’s itinerary for their home summer this year, the klaxon of the Stokes’ announcement should not be necessary.
— Ben Stokes (@benstokes38) July 18, 2022
Counting from day one of the first Test against New Zealand at Lord’s on June 2 to the slated fifth day of the third and final Test against South Africa on September 12, England’s international season spans 103 days. They will have been scheduled to play on 50 of them.
There are the slightly extenuating circumstances of the rearranged COVID-cancelled fifth Test against India from last year that was plonked into the schedule. To make India’s trip worthwhile, a trio of T20s and ODIs were thrown in.
But Tuesday’s first ODI against South Africa will begin around 40 hours after the India series finished (thanks for giving us some cricket to write about on a fallow day, Ben!). England played three ODIs against the Netherlands of questionable competitive merit in between the second and third Tests with New Zealand.
Stokes’ ODI retirement means Jonny Bairstow is now the only England cricketer playing across all three international formats. Jofra Archer, Mark Wood, Chris Woakes and Saqib Mahmood might also be doing so, but they are among a posse of fast bowlers whose bodies have broken down through injury, with stress fractures cutting a swathe through those available for selection.
Then there is the potential complication of finding replacements for the huge holes Stokes and Morgan leave in the ODI side when England’s domestic 50-over competition has been shunted to the margins.
The Royal London One-Day Cup is mostly crammed into August, when it will run at the same time as The Hundred. England’s star white-ball players and the best overseas talent will take part in the latter 100-ball-a-side jamboree.
As such, any standout performers in the Royal London One-Day Cup will effectively be shining in a county competition pitched perhaps a rung or two above second XI standard. On one hand, it is heartening to see young players getting chances to play senior cricket, but it is hardly a breeding ground for future internationals.
Who will replace Ben Stokes in the England ODI side?
As has generally been the case since the ECB flipped its once-steadfastly standoffish attitude to the IPL and freed up England players to participate in the world’s leading franchise tournament, Stokes’ replacement will probably be a T20 standout who is asked to do what they do best over a greater number of deliveries.
Stokes will forever be etched into English cricket history as a barnstorming all-rounder in the lineage of Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff. Unlike those predecessors, batting is his strongest suit and this was even more the case in ODIs.
Take the 2019 World Cup final, for example. Stokes’ 84 not out hauled the hosts into the super-over, where he and Buttler scrambled 15 runs to set up victory by the barest of margins.
But he bowled three of his 10-over allocation as his teammates expertly restricted the Black Caps to 241/8. Seven was the most he bowled in any game in the tournament.
Cricketers of Stokes’ all-round prowess come along once in a generation if you’re lucky so, in the meantime, England will focus on filling the void left by a batter with three centuries and 21 fifties to his name, in 89 ODI innings at an average of 39.44, scored at a shade below a run a ball.
They need a player in the middle order who can throw the throttle down and repeatedly clear the ropes, but also one who can cannily construct and lay foundations alongside Root at No.3 if required.
Having also lost the similarly left-handed Morgan, England might look towards a like-for-like replacement in that regard. Dawid Malan has made a place in the T20 side his own and already had a couple of ODI fifties before tucking into the Dutch attack for a maiden ton last month.
The last of Ben Duckett’s three ODIs, all against Bangladesh, came almost six years ago but a pair of impressive recent knocks — 85 off 67 and 44 off 38 against the touring South Africans for England Lions — showed he remains in the selectors’ thoughts.
There are justifiable fears over how well Duckett’s technique might hold up during a World Cup in India, although those don’t apply to James Vince, a fine player of spin who scored his maiden ODI hundred against Pakistan last year.
That was in a reserve line-up hastily assembled under stand-in captain Stokes after a COVID outbreak in the England camp, but it still feels strange that he has not been seen in international colours since.
It is true enough that Vince, a member of the 2019 World Cup-winning squad, had failed to grasp several chances previously despite his demonstrable talent. Stokes’ withdrawal could still be handily timed for a player on the crest of a wave having cannily captained Hampshire to Vitality Blast glory.
Harry Brook seems destined to play plenty for England across the formats, even if the same was once said about fellow right-hander Vince. Perhaps his time is now, to step in and help fellow Yorkshireman Root helm the batting line-up through the post-Morgan and Stokes era.
It adds up to a decent list of options. If it wasn’t for wrong-headed decision-makers cramming the calendar and the coffers at the expense of all else, then Stokes would still be among them. Who replaces him in the England XI is far from the most consequential decision to be made when considering the bigger picture.