Quick single: apophenia, Stokes and me
I have been a Stokes sceptic. Muscles, tattoos and attitude, but never a telling or enduring contribution that would put him at the top of the county averages or even earn him regular use of the new ball for Durham.
His breakthrough at Perth was, I thought (ironically, as you will find, if you read on), just one of those things that happen. A bit of bold batting by a youngster on a day that things fell into place. But not a repeatable moment. Stokes’ bowling: the veering to the left in his delivery stride – a technical kink rather than an idiosyncracy from which he drew force or work on the ball. And the outcome was too predictable to bother Test batsmen.
Stokes’ 2014 made me feel sage.
Then yesterday, I switched. Above all, it was the on-driving: tight, measured and drilled to the boundary over and over again. Of the orthodox cricket shots, the most difficult to achieve because of the risk of imbalance: head in line with hands and ball, not tipping to the off-side to create the angle; top hand and bottom hand having milliseconds of dominance, with power exchanged from top to bottom at the precise moment of contact. Stokes’ muscle and attitude were deployed in controlled, balanced bursts.
The context was impressive as well. England four wickets down for thirty, New Zealand’s bowlers in the ascendancy. Stokes used the attacking field to his advantage, flaying short balls across open field.
This morning, thinking about all that Stokes’ innings meant for England, but most of all the future ability to pick the best four bowlers in the country, I remembered apophenia. Finding meaningful patterns in random data.
For all Stokes’ splendid, upright balance, why was he fed full balls on the leg-stump and long-hops? ‘The difficult first hour’ (itself a candidate for apophenic misapprehension) had passed by the time he came to the wicket, which showed itself to be true and good for strokeplay. Hadn’t there also been a few inside edges that could have seen Stokes fall before lunch?
Ben Stokes, apophenia and me: time will tell. I did, though, relish those on-drives.