In November 2019, England arrived for a Test series in New Zealand ready to unleash Jofra Archer, fresh from a stunning debut Ashes series.
But, over 10 days, Joe Root went a long way to breaking him. Ignoring that Archer had been most effective when predominantly bowling a good length, Root tasked Archer with the grunt work of fast bowling: pounding in and bowl short on placid tracks. Archer bowled 82 overs in 10 days – about 10 per cent as much as he had bowled in his entire first-class career up to that point. The strain almost certainly contributed to the plethora of injuries that Archer has suffered since. Since the start of 2020, he has now played just six of England’s 25 Test matches.
A little over two years on, and 1,250 miles across the trans-Tasman Ditch, it was hard to see what had been learned. Having bowled one prized asset into the ground, rendering him unable to make the Ashes at all, Root now used another in the same way.
This time it was Ben Stokes who was asked to perform the same role that he had given Archer in Mount Maunganui. Simply to glance at a field with six men on the leg side, with no need for even a token slip, and the round the wicket angle to Steve Smith made England’s plan easier to follow than the movements of a clock. Stokes would be asked to mimic Bodyline, or as close as the laws of the game now permit, with a Kookaburra ball and England toiling in the field.
Naturally, Stokes gave all of himself to his task: he is a cricketer who knows no other way. He even got a short delivery to thud into Smith’s glove.
But his spell did not account for either Smith or Usman Khawaja. Instead, it only accounted for himself: after 23 balls of pounding the pitch, Stokes’s left side gave way. He immediately took his England cap from the umpire, and went off the field. While he returned later in Australia’s innings, Stokes did not take the ball again. England are now left awaiting news of how serious his injury is.
It was, in many ways, an entirely predictable turn of events. Few cricketers have ever been less well-equipped for the rigours of bowling fast down under than Stokes in 2021/22. Before the opening Test in Brisbane, he had gone nine months without bowling in Test cricket, and five months without bowling a single ball in first-class cricket.
Even 75 Tests into his career, Stokes the bowler remains widely misunderstood. With his combativeness and stamina, it is easy to think of him as the dreaded moniker of the ‘enforcer’. Yet, more often, the best of Stokes the bowler has been when pitching the ball up, finding seam and reverse or conventional swing. He averages 34.8 when bowling a short length in Test cricket, but just 20.3 when bowling a good length.
Yet all series, Stokes – seemingly under orders – has used his short ball as his delivery of stock, rather than shock. Across the four Tests, he has bowled shorter than eight metres from the stumps with 51 per cent of deliveries. The more he has bowled short, the worse he has been: Stokes’s 196 short balls this series have snared just one wicket at a cost of 179 runs, conceding 5.5 runs an over.
It is a method that, in the name of providing a point of difference, has been neither economical not incisive. When he has bowled a good or full length this series, Stokes has taken three wickets for 107 runs.
And so, for all that he will know that a series return of four wickets at 71.5 apiece has been underwhelming, Stokes can be afforded considerable sympathy. For, after arriving in Australia underprepared for the ardors of bowling in the Ashes, he was handed a role which did not make best use of his talents.
The sight of Stokes grimacing as he walked off in Sydney, unable to complete his over felt like the logical culmination of this misuse.