Over the last forty-odd years, there have been three great all-rounders who have captured the imagination with their larger-than-life personalities and their brilliance with bat and ball – and even in the field: Sir Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff and Ben Stokes. I’m just too young to remember Tony Greig, who some might say deserves to be ranked alongside the other three. But who is the greatest of them all? In the Foreword of this year’s Playfair Cricket Annual, I stated that, for me, the debate was now over and that Ben Stokes is England’s greatest all-rounder of my era. So why do I say that?
First of all, let’s look at the bare statistics of their England Test careers (Flintoff also played one Test for an ICC side, not included in these figures):
Stokes narrowly emerges with the best batting average, while Botham comfortably has the best bowling average. And when it comes to their net averages (ie how much higher their batting average is than their bowling average) we get: Botham +5.14, Flintoff -1.45 and Stokes +3.82. While all of them are renowned as superb fielders, it is Botham who again emerges on top, averaging 0.67 catches per innings, compared to Stokes (0.55) and Flintoff (0.37). But, despite this, I still plump for Stokes as the best of them. There are three main reasons.
|Batting and Fielding||M||I||NO||HS||Runs||Avge||100||50||Ct|
|A.Flintoff||2457.5||502 7303||219 33.34||5- 58||3||–|
First: longevity and consistency. Botham’s Test career ran for a few weeks short of 15 years, from July 1977 to June 1992. However, from the start of February 1984 to the end of his career he made just one of his 14 centuries. All but three of his remarkable 27 five-wicket hauls came by the start of 1985. Indeed, by the end of 1981 he had taken 215 wickets in 44 Tests, with the next 11 years producing a much more modest 168 wickets in 58 Tests. With the bat, 1982 was his best year (he scored 1095 runs at 49.77), but thereafter in only one year (1984) did he manage to surpass his career average of 33.54. He remained a talismanic figure, still capable of great feats, but they grew rarer as time went by. Roughly speaking, the second half of his career was a shadow of the first half.
Flintoff played for just over 11 years, from July 1998 to August 2009, but his career path was rather different. While Botham set off in a blaze of glory, Flintoff was a relatively slow starter. His seven highest innings of 90 or more all fell between March 2002 and August 2005. Even more strikingly, eight of his 11 best bowling figures were achieved in 2005. He took 104 wickets in 26 Tests in 2004 and 2005, while his other 52 Tests brought him 115 wickets. His moments of glory were brief and almost as spectacular as Botham’s, but he was unable to sustain them for as long.
By contrast, Stokes has yet to reach a decade in Tests, having begun his career in December 2013. However, his career highs have been spread out pretty evenly across that whole period, hitting two centuries in a year on five separate occasions. Similarly, he has bettered his career average of 35 in five of the years between 2016 to 2022. As a bowler, he has taken four wickets in an innings 12 times, with only 2016 providing three instances where he achieved that feat. A disappointing year with the ball in 2021 was surrounded by his lowest average in 2020 and his second most prolific year in 2022. In short, he has sustained his performances with bat and ball across his career to date. With him now troubled with a knee problem, it will be interesting to see how much longer he can keep this up, and whether he moves, Kallis-like, to becoming more of a batter who bowls.
All three men have had relatively short periods as England captain, but it is their response to this honour that gives Stokes his second decisive advantage. Botham was captain for 12 Tests in 1980 and 1981, winning none of them, losing four and drawing the rest. In his defence, he was taking on the formidable West Indies for most of them, so any victory would have been a huge achievement. But on a personal level, his batting fell away as he averaged just 13.14, while he took 35 wickets at 33.09 – modestly behind his career average, but well below his average to that point in his career. Again, we can make allowances for the quality of the opposition. But the conclusion has to be that the captaincy both inhibited his own performances and he was unable to inspire his team to greater things.
Flintoff was in the job for 11 Tests in 2006 and 2007, two of which were won, but seven lost. Like Botham, he found himself up against one of the all-time great sides, the Australia outfit of the time. He started off with a run of good scores – 43, 70, 51, 50, 50, 33* – but followed that up with a string of failures – 9, 4*, 1, 0, 0, 16. Overall, his batting average improved slightly, to 33.23, while his bowling average fell back a little, to 34.44. His net score of -1.21 was actually a touch above his career record. He was unable to do anything to improve the performances of his team, with the 2006-07 Ashes series a painful whitewash. The charisma of both men seems to have overawed their team-mates.
Now contrast their returns with Stokes. In fourteen Tests as captain, he is averaging 37.00 with the bat and 28.00 with the ball – both improvements on his career averages. He has led England to 11 wins and three defeats. His win percentage of 78.57% is bettered only by Brian Close (who won six of his seven Tests) and this came after a period where England had stumbled through a period of lacklustre performances. Established players have been inspired to do better, while newcomers such as Rehan Ahmed, Harry Brook and Matthew Potts have all delivered immediately. No one could doubt Stokes’s status as the leader of his team, but his players have grown under him, not wilted in his shadow, and he has shown good tactical awareness.
Not only have England been winning under Stokes, they have been doing so in spectacular style. In 1061 Tests, they have managed to score at a rate of more than 99 runs per 100 balls on just eight occasions – five of them have fallen since Stokes took charge. Under Stokes, England have also set a new record for their highest successful run chase (378 for three v India at Edgbaston in 2022), breaking their previous record of 362 for nine, set in 2019 at Headingley, when it was Stokes who famously ushered them to victory.
And it is that Headingley Test that provides the third reason why I feel Stokes is England’s greatest all-rounder: when the pressure is at its most intense and the odds are stacked against England, he is so often the one to deliver a match-winning performance. On top of that one, he was there at the crease, making his highest IT20 score of 52*, to help England to World Cup victory last autumn; and in the summer of 2019 his 84* was the key contribution as he again marshalled the tail to bring England their first 50-over World Cup triumph. Having been the bowler who let slip a possible IT20 World Cup title in 2015-16, he has returned stronger and more resolute under pressure.
He has learned to vary the pace of his innings, often starting cautiously before launching an attack. In May 2015, England were trailing by 134 after the first innings in the Lord’s Test against New Zealand. By tea on the fourth day, England were 261 for four in their second knock – 127 ahead, with a draw the most likely outcome, as they were sure to need to bat well into the final day to build up a big enough lead. It took Stokes 57 balls to reach his fifty, and a further 28 deliveries to get to three figures. By the close, England had a lead of 295, giving them enough time to bowl out the opposition. And, in pursuit of the victory, Stokes dismissed Kane Williamson and Brendon McCullum in successive deliveries. He’s equally flexible with the ball, sometimes being used as a short-sharp battering ram, unleashing a barrage of bouncers; other times he has bowled mammoth spells to keep one end tight.
Botham will point to his world record of five matches where he scored a century and took five wickets in an innings, a feat neither Flintoff nor Stokes has ever managed (Botham is also one of just four men in Test history to score a century and take ten wickets in a match). Headingley ’81 will always stand as his legacy, and indeed that whole series is rightly known as Botham’s Ashes. Stokes is yet to dominate any series in a comparable way. Flintoff, too, had his golden Ashes summer in 2005, but it is the number of times Stokes has stepped up and changed things that stands out for me.
Cricket is always a matter of opinions, and there will be many who feel that Botham deserves the accolade as England’s greatest all-rounder. Until recently, I would have almost certainly agreed with them, but I now believe Stokes is the one. For those of you who aren’t fully convinced, maybe this Ashes summer – against another formidable Australia side – will finally tip you over to his side, too. I wouldn’t want to bet against him, that’s for sure.