Balls to statistics: Ben Stokes' moments of brilliance show his true value

Sri Lanka v England, 2nd Test, Pallekele November 15, 2018

The average person, statistics tell us, has one testicle and one breast. They have 1.99 legs, too. Which means most people have more than the average number of legs.

The point? You have to be a bit careful with statistics.

Look at the basic stats available to explain England's performance on the second day of the Kandy Test. They show that Ben Stokes bowled one expensive over which conceded two boundaries. You might be forgiven for thinking he was a bit of a passenger in the side.

But Stokes isn't an average cricketer and his value isn't adequately expressed by averages.

Stokes made two key interventions on the second day, without which, Sri Lanka could have put clear water between the sides. He had, through a combination of his awareness, his commitment and his athleticism, pulled off an outstanding run-out to break a dangerous stand and, a few minutes later, clung on to a very sharp chance at slip.

Before Stokes' intervention, England had looked listless and impotent in the field. Despite the assistance available to them, England's spinners had failed to settle on a line or length to put the batsmen under pressure, while there was so little in the pitch for the seamers that Sam Curran (who may be carrying a side injury; the England camp have yet to confirm it) bowled only two overs all day and James Anderson only contributed four overs until the second new ball was available in the evening session. Dimuth Karunaratne was starting to look impregnable in a fourth-wicket stand with Dhananjaya de Silva worth 96. For the first time in the match, the pitch was starting to look flat.

But then de Silva dropped one into the off-side and called Karunaratne for a sharp single. It was probably an unwise call, it is true, but nine times out of 10, it would have gone unpunished.

On this occasion, though, Karunaratne was unfortunate enough to see Stokes, sprinting around from gully, anticipate the opportunity.

Karunaratne was unfortunate, too, in that the ball bounced up nicely into Stokes' right hand at about waist height. By that time, Stokes was at point, which meant he had one stump to aim at and no time to steady himself. But so strong is his core, so good was the throw, that his direct hit left Karunaratne just short of his ground.

Who knows what might have happened had Stokes not hit the stumps. But so solid did Karunaratne look - and so toothless England - that is absolutely possible that he would have batted Sri Lanka into a match-defining position.

Stokes' catch, at slip, was almost as good. Jack Leach had drawn Kusal Mendis forward and taken the edge of his bat with a slightly quicker delivery. The ball flew fast and fine, far to the left of Stokes at slip, who may have been slightly unsighted by Ben Foakes' instinctive effort to follow the ball. But Stokes threw out his left hand and clung on to a very tough chance. The Foakes-Stokes partnership is starting to look encouragingly waterproof.

Without those two moments of inspiration, England would be in deep trouble in this game. Adil Rashid bowled a good spell just after lunch, but otherwise delivered far too many short balls, while Moeen Ali struggled to settle upon a testing length. Leach was steady but it doesn't reflect especially well on the trio of spinners that Joe Root felt he had to bowl himself for eight overs.

They still ended the second day of this match at a disadvantage - a first-innings deficit of 46 is significant on this pitch - but if they are to go on and win this game, they will surely reflect on those two little moments of magic from Stokes - moments which will hardly warrant a mention in basic career stats or be illustrated in the manner they deserve on a scorecard - which kept them in the fight. He lifted his team and infused them with renewed belief and energy.

Stokes provided similarly important but unsung contributions in Galle. While his second-innings bowling figures there - 1 for 16 - looked unremarkable, they tell only a fraction of the story. Stokes defied a sluggish pitch to produce a spell of bowling so quick and hostile that Angelo Mathews fell into the hook trap - James Anderson, at midwicket, put down the chance - while Kusal Mendis later remarked that it was one of the toughest spells of quick bowling he had ever faced. Yes, he said, tougher than spells from Dale Steyn, Mitchell Starc, Kagiso Rabada et al. Those are strong words.

Stokes' second-innings runs in Galle - he made 62 - were overshadowed by Keaton Jennings' century. But the speed with which Stokes scored - he hit four fours and three sixes in scoring at 66.66 runs per 100 balls - relieved just a bit of pressure from Jennings' shoulders and ensured England's little wobble (they were 71 for 3 when Stokes and Jennings came together) was not to become serious. It didn't gain many headlines, it wasn't much of a talking point, but it was an important contribution to the team cause.

There's nothing unusual in this. Over the last few years, Stokes has batted everywhere from No. 3 to No. 11. He has batted aggressively when required and defensively (such as at Trent Bridge a few months ago) when appropriate.

He has fielded at slip, in the gully, in the cordon and, such is his desire to be in the thick of things, memorably waved Alastair Cook (his captain at the time) away from short cover when the ball kept going there during England's tour of Bangladesh a couple of years ago.

He has acted as a swing bowler when needed (with Anderson injured, he claimed 6 for 36 at Trent Bridge in 2015 in such a role), delivered a barrage of short balls (as he did at Galle) when asked, sacrificed his own figures in a bid to make things happen, or simply bowled dry. He is a remarkable asset to this England side.

But the figures don't really reflect it. While his bowling average has now dropped below his batting average - always a positive sign for an allrounder - the fact that his batting average is just 33.90 hardly does justice to his ability. You can understand why those who judge players from scorecards conclude - quite erroneously - that he is over-rated.

Maybe this is the way Stokes would want it. For while he loves to be in the thick of games, while he thrives on being of value to his team, you suspect he detests the spotlight. Over the last couple of years, he has arguably become England's most high-profile player. Partly because of his talent, partly because of that huge IPL deal (he was retained by Rajasthan this morning) and partly, sadly, because of events that fateful night in Bristol. Whatever the cause of the media attention, though - whether positive or negative - Stokes has given every impression of hating it.

So he probably won't give too much thought to the lack of five-wicket hauls or hundreds. And he certainly won't lose sleep over his average.

His team-mates know his value. And so do his opponents. In Stokes, England have a gem. And, on the second day in Kandy, his skill just about kept them in this game.

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