Australia will go into their Ashes campaign in Britain with customary cocky confidence, having swept England 5-0 when they toured Down Under in the 2013-14 summer – not to mention England’s diabolical World Cup campaign which saw the heavyweights head home before the knockout stages.
But the Aussie tourists will be keeping a keen eye on a player who was incongruously left out of that World Cup squad: New Zealand-born all-rounder Ben Stokes.
The 24-year-old, who moved to the UK at the age of 12 when his Rugby League coach father, former Kiwi Test prop Gerard, took up a position with Workington Town, has been in scintillating touch since his shock omission.
Stokes responded to the snub with 15 sixes in a stunning 151 not out for England Lions in an ODI against South Africa A. After a solid Test series on tour for England against West Indies in April, the redheaded tyro was sensational in the spectacular first-Test triumph over in-form New Zealand at Lord’s.
He earned comparisons with England all-rounder greats – and Ashes heroes – Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff after belting 92 off 94 balls in the first innings, bludgeoning the fastest-ever century at Lord’s (85 balls) in England’s second dig, and taking 3/38 in the fourth innings as the hosts snared a superb 124-run win.
Botham endorsed Stokes as England’s trump this week as the first Ashes Test in Cardiff loomed.
“I think Ben Stokes is the real thing,” Botham said. “I think he’s got the right attitude, he’s a tough competitor and is a good enough bowler and good enough batsman. He didn’t have much luck with the ball in the Tests v New Zealand – had a few catches dropped off him – but that can suddenly change.”
Like his game-changing predecessors, Stokes is a lionhearted performer with a fierce temperament who refuses to take a backwards step – key individual ingredients against an Australian outfit that has repeatedly shown in recent times that toning down their aggression or sledging is not on their agenda.
Australia are familiar with Stokes’ talents – his plucky performances as a Test newcomer were a rare highlight of England’s woeful 2013/14 Ashes campaign. He hit a maiden ton (120) in Perth and took 6/99 in an innings at the SCG, finishing the series with 279 runs at 34.88 and 15 wickets at 32.8 in four outings.
Stokes was one of the few Poms to stand tall in the face of the Mitchell Johnson-led bowling onslaught and consistent verbal tirade the Aussies harangued the embattled tourists with.
England’s recent return to form – with Stokes at the forefront – will perhaps have the Australian side slightly edgy. They have lost their last three Ashes series on British soil, winning just two, losing seven and drawing six matches on the 2005, ’09 and ’13 tours. Meanwhile, a mismatched two-Test series in the Caribbean was hardly the ideal preparation.
And if Stokes can have a Botham- or Flintoff-like influence on this series, rank outsiders England will charge back into contention to reclaim the sacred urn.
The first Test of the five-match series begins at Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens on Wednesday, 8.00pm AEST.