"We're in the presence of greatness."
- Joe Root
"He's certainly the best allrounder I've ever played with, and he's becoming the best allrounder that England's ever had."
- James Anderson
Ben Stokes has everyone - fans, critics, team-mates - eating out of his hands, and with good reason: over the last four and a half years, he has scored eight Test hundreds and averages 43.3 with the bat. And he has taken 110 wickets at 28. Even these numbers don't do justice to his range of skills: with bat in hand, he has the astonishing ability to go through multiple gears in the same Test (Old Trafford, 2020) and even the same innings (Headingley, 2019). With ball in hand, he bowls the tough overs and the long spells when England are looking for a breakthrough. Add to that his wholehearted fielding and the ability to be the perfect team man, and it's little wonder that England can't have enough of him.
For the purposes of this article, though, we'll limit the analyses to his two primary skills, batting and bowling. The high notes that Stokes has hit as a Test allrounder over the last few years have, quite justifiably, evoked comparisons with the all-time great allrounders. How does his peak thus far compare with the best of other allrounders? Let the numbers do the talking.
From the start of 2016 - when he made his highest Test score, of 258, against South Africa in Cape Town - till the end of the second Test of the recently concluded home series against West Indies, over a span of 45 Tests, there has been a difference of 15.6 between Stokes' batting and bowling averages. How does that compare with the best 45-Test streaks of other allrounders? (The best 45 Tests in terms of highest difference between batting and bowling averages are considered.)
Taking a cut-off of at least 1500 runs scored and 100 wickets taken in these 45 Tests - Stokes scored 3401 runs and took 110 wickets in these matches - only four allrounders out of 22 have a higher difference in average: Garry Sobers, Jacques Kallis, Imran Khan and Shaun Pollock. Sobers and Kallis had slightly poorer bowling averages than Stokes, but were phenomenal with the bat, averaging more than 70. Imran was outstanding with both bat and ball in the period between September 1982 and December 1991, scoring nearly 55 runs per dismissal and conceding only 20.1 runs per wicket. Pollock just made the 1500-run cut-off - he scored 1561 runs in 45 Tests between January 1999 and September 2003, though his contribution to team runs was extremely low, as we'll see later - but his bowling stats were stunning: 185 wickets at 19.9. For the top three allrounders, the difference in averages was more than 30, while the difference for Pollock was 20.2.
For all the other top allrounders, though, the difference was less than 15.6. Stokes is marginally ahead of Keith Miller (difference 15.4) and Ian Botham (14.6), while Tony Greig and Andrew Flintoff, the two other leading England allrounders on the list, managed a difference of around ten runs between their batting and bowling averages in their best 45 Tests.
Twenty-two allrounders make the cut-off of 1500 runs and 100 wickets in their best 45 Tests, and among them Richard Hadlee is in seventh place - a slot above Botham - with an average difference of 14.8, while Kapil Dev, the fourth among the Fab Four allrounders of the 1980s, is 18th with a difference of 4.6.
It needs to be mentioned here that the stats for these 22 players vary widely, in terms of both runs and wickets. Sobers scored 4790 runs and Kallis 4372 in 45 Tests, while Pollock scored only 1561, and Wasim Akram 1506. On the other hand, Kallis took only 103 wickets, and Sobers 126, compared to 253 by Hadlee, 203 by Botham, 189 by Kapil, 185 by Pollock, and 180 by Khan. While they are all broadly categorised as allrounders, their roles in their teams were very different: Sobers and Kallis were clearly batting allrounders, while Hadlee, Botham, Kapil and Pollock were largely bowling allrounders.
Sobers scored 19.7% of West Indies' bat runs in these 45 Tests, Kallis contributed 18.2%, but in terms of percentage of team wickets, Kallis only contributed 14.2% and Sobers 16.5%. Hadlee, meanwhile, scored only 10.2% of his team's runs but took a whopping 37.9% of their wickets. Pollock's batting contribution to South Africa's kitty was minimal. He scored only 7.1% of their runs in these 45 Tests, which is the second-lowest percentage among the 22 allrounders in this list - only Chaminda Vaas, with 7%, is lower - but took 25.2% of South Africa's wickets. The percentages for Khan were 11.9 (runs) and 28.2 (wickets).
For Stokes, the numbers are even: he has scored 14.8% of the England's bat runs, and taken 14.7% of their wickets. That essentially makes him more of a batting allrounder, given that bowling allrounders tend to take around 25% of their team's wickets. Botham, for instance, took 31.2% of England's wickets and scored 13.1% of their runs in his best 45 Tests, between June 1978 and July 1982. The corresponding numbers for Greig were 17.2% and 13.8%, and for Flintoff 22.3% of the wickets and 11.8% of the runs. The scatter plot above indicates where these 22 allrounders are positioned with respect to the percentage of team runs and team wickets they contributed in their best 45 Tests. It is clear from the plot that Stokes makes bigger contributions with the bat than with the ball. Only three among these 22 allrounders - Sobers, Kallis and Shakib Al Hasan - score a higher percentage of their team's runs, while 19 take a higher percentage of wickets.
With Stokes, though, just the number of wickets doesn't do full justice to his contribution as a bowler. He bowls the tough overs and the long spells when England are looking for breakthroughs, and that is best illustrated by this stat: 41 of his 156 career wickets have ended batting partnerships of 50-plus. The percentage of 26.3 is the highest among all fast bowlers who have taken 100-plus career wickets.
And here is further proof of Stokes' bowling effectiveness when the rest of the attack didn't have things going their way. On the ten occasions when he has taken a four-wicket haul, he has a strike rate of 24.7 balls per wicket; in those innings, the rest of the attack struck every 93.3 balls. The ratio of 3.8 between the two strike rates is the third best among all bowlers with at least ten four-fors - there are 183 bowlers on that list. Only Fidel Edwards and Peter Pollock have a better ratio, and then just marginally. The latest such example was the Southampton Test against West Indies, when Stokes took 4 for 49 in 14 overs in the first innings while the rest of England's attack took the remaining six wickets in 88 overs.
The sample size is admittedly small here, but it illustrates Stokes' ability to make things happen when his team-mates aren't quite getting it right. In bowler-friendly conditions, when Anderson, Broad and Co are running through batting line-ups, Stokes sometimes doesn't even get to bowl. His value is when things get tougher for the bowlers, and then his contributions are invaluable.
Maintaining a 40-plus average with bat and a sub-30 average with ball over an extended period of time is rare for most allrounders - most tend to slip up with either bat or ball - but Stokes now has an ongoing streak of 50 such Tests: since October 2015, he averages 40.63 with the bat and 28.69 with the ball. In all of Test cricket, there are only two allrounders who have maintained these stats for more than 50 Tests: Khan (81 Tests) and Kallis (76). (These are the longest such streaks for each player.)
From his seventh to his 87th Test, Khan averaged 40.06 with the bat and 22.22 with the ball. Given that his entire career lasted 88 Tests, that means the period in which he crossed that threshold covered 92% of his career, which is remarkable. The longest such streak for Kallis extended from his 14th to his 89th Test, during which period he averaged 61.62 with bat, and 29.93 with ball. While averaging over 40 with the bat wasn't much of a problem for him, Kallis became less of a bowler later in his career and his average crept over 30, though his career bowling average remained a respectable 32.65.
Stokes' current streak of 50 is already two Tests better than Botham. Between February 1978 and July 1982, Botham had a 48-Test streak where he averaged 40.31 with bat and 23.44 with ball, but thereafter his batting average slipped below 40. Flintoff's longest such streak was 42 matches, while Greig's was 37. There have only been eight allrounders who have had such streaks of 40-plus Tests, including Daniel Vettori, who is joint fifth with 48 such Tests, ahead of much bigger names.
Since the start of 2016, Stokes has been one of the pillars of England's batting, despite coming in relatively low, at No. 5 or 6: in this period, only Joe Root has scored more runs (4612) at a marginally better average (44.77, to Stokes' 43.3). Since the start of 2019, Stokes has been the undisputed leader in the batting line-up, scoring 1453 runs at 53.81; no other player has scored 600-plus runs at a 40-plus average in this period.
Stokes' value in the batting line-up is especially immense in situations when England have lost wickets relatively early and need the lower middle order to lift the team to a reasonable total. With his ability to block or attack as the situation demands, Stokes has the game to see off dangerous bowling spells, and then attack and score quick runs with the lower order. When batting at No. 5 or lower since the start of 2016, he has played 34 innings when England have made 300-plus totals; in those innings, he has scored 2004 runs, which works out to 14.9% of England's runs. That is the highest percentage of runs scored by any England batsman at No. 5 or lower, in a stretch of 34 innings when the team has scored 300 or more. His percentage is marginally higher than the best 34-innings sequences of Graham Thorpe, Paul Collingwood, Botham and Ian Bell. That, in a nutshell, illustrates Stokes' importance in the lower middle order.
Through this article, Stokes' current peak has been compared with the all-time peaks of legends who have retired, which is slightly unfair to Stokes because he is likely to scale greater heights - or at least maintain his current form - over the next few years. If he does manage that, a similar analysis in a couple of years could see him even higher up the list of the greatest allrounders of all time.