DANIEL GALLAN: England’s star power sets them apart
One of cricket’s quirks is that it is essentially a team game contested by individuals. Of course, social cohesion is an invaluable commodity for any group hoping to secure victory, but it’s hardly essential.
CLR James, the godfather of cricket philosophy, wrote: “The batsman facing the ball does not merely represent his side. For that moment, to all intents and purposes, he is his side.”
When that batsman faces a bowler and plays a shot towards a fielder, no one else matters. There is no off-side line to maintain. There is no attacker making an off the ball run. Just three people hogging the limelight.
Believing the theory that cricket matches can be won by individual brilliance, how many is enough? What about three?
You’d need a wicket-taker. Someone who can thrive in all conditions at any stage of the innings. Old ball or new, dust bowl or green top; you’d want a strike bowler extraordinaire with enough variation to keep the willow wielders guessing.
As for runs, you wouldn’t want to waste your selection on either a biffer or a blocker. You’d want someone who has every shot in the book but who knows when to play them. A modern batsman for the modern game, with a cool head on his shoulders.
As for the final pick, you’d want someone who can support both your specialists. A rare breed of all-rounder who is just as likely to bag a five-for as register three figures with the bat. Oh, you’d obviously need them all to be gun fielders.
Worryingly for Faf du Plessis and his South Africans later today, they come up against a side who possess three players who fit the above descriptions.
Jofra Archer, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes; all serious contenders for the most valuable player at this World Cup. It’s not often that a single team contains such match-winning pedigree all at once, which is why it is such a strange turn of fate that all three found themselves wearing the pink and blue of the Rajasthan Royals at this year’s IPL. And though the winners of the very first edition of the tournament back in 2008 struggled this time around - finishing seventh out of eight teams - head coach Paddy Upton underlined just how much of a threat all three of his prized Englishmen pose.
“They’re world-class players, there’s no doubt about that,” said Upton, the South African coach who worked as Gary Kirsten’s assistant with the Indian and South African national teams before becoming a respected T20 franchise head coach around the world. “They each bring something unique and are very different characters.”
Buttler is a freak with the bat in hand. He’s impossible to bowl to. He hits balls on his pads up and over cover by somehow managing to get inside the line of the ball. He defies logic by whipping wide half-volleys through midwicket by employing rubbery wrists.
Unlike Quinton de Kock who stands from a solid base, or even AB de Villiers who more often than not moves back and across before hitting from one rock-solid knee, Buttler is always on the move, trusting his symbiotic hands and eyes to take care of the rest. What’s more, he’s a pleasant bloke.
“He’s the strong and silent type, only speaking when he has something to say and letting the bat do the talking,” Upton said. “But he’s no pushover. He’s the quintessential nice guy but he’s a nice guy who finishes first.”
If Buttler is the smiling assassin, Ben Stokes is the axe-wielding Viking. On the field, he is an outrageously competitive character. He’s the player who volunteers to bowl to the batsman who has just lost three balls out the ground. He’s the player who puts his hand up to bat next after several of his teammates have been retired hurt by a demon fast bowler with a taste for bouncers.
He has the propensity to spill over, as he infamously did in Bristol in 2017 where a late night punch-up saw him miss that year’s Ashes. But when he is revved up, there are few more captivating sights in world cricket.
“He is probably one of the most consummate energisers of a team environment I have come across,” Upton revealed. “Every cell in his body is vibrating like a night club dance floor. He operates at full energy all the time and he transfers that to the team.”
After his side had lost another IPL game, Stokes was going through fielding drills as if one dropped catch would mean the end of his professional career. On the muggiest, hottest nights, Stokes was spurring his team on in training, leading by example.
He is a force of nature. A hurricane with an endless supply of ocean to keep him fuelled. In a New Year’s Test in Cape Town in 2016, he bludgeoned the fastest ever score of 250, reaching the milestone in 196 balls (he would add eight more before being run out by De Villiers).
It’s easier to brace for a storm when you know it’s coming and have endured it before. Jofra Archer represents the tsunami that comes out of nowhere. A few in the Proteas than would have seen him up close during the IPL but with only three ODIs and a solitary T20 to his name, the most talked about English cricketer since Kevin Pietersen is something of an enigma. Upton, though, has some cautionary words.
“He’s one of the most complete bowlers I’ve ever seen,” his franchise coach declared. “His ability to execute what he sets out to do is impeccable. Not many in the world can bowl the exact ball they intended to bowl with such consistency. He’s also quick [regularly north of 145km/h]. He has variation, he works batsman out and he understands exactly how to plan his over as well as his four-over spell.”
So the full package then. Hardly reassuring for Du Plessis, who has been reminded for well over a month that his team head into today’s game as no-hopers.
Were this any other team sport - perhaps rugby or football - Ottis Gibson could outfox Trevor Bayliss. He might employ a bold strategy that nullifies the threat of the match-winners in the home dressing room. He might ask one of his more selfless players to occupy a role that eliminates a particular threat.
Cricket doesn’t work like that. Granted, there are upsets in this sport, the same as any. But those occur when the underdogs’ star players step up and the favourites’ star players flounder. The only problem is, England have more than a few who can win games on their own.
Daniel Gallan is a freelance reporter based in the UK.