World Cup hero Ben Stokes’ reluctant ODI retirement demonstrates decline of 50-over game

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Ben Stokes’ retirement from ODI cricket reinforces three things we already knew: first, he is utterly motivated by Test cricket; second, men's ODI cricket is dying before our eyes; third, that England’s schedule makes it almost impossible to represent the national team across all formats.

Stokes bowed out with a pop at his employers, that did not have to be made. This was a reluctant retirement, a necessary ordering of commitments for a big ticket item who, in his thirties, does not believe it is possible to give everything in every format.

“I can’t give my teammates 100 per cent of myself in this format anymore,” said Stokes.

“Three formats are just unsustainable for me now. Not only do I feel that my body is letting me down because of the schedule and what is expected of us, but I also feel that I am taking the place of another player who can give Jos [Buttler] and the rest of the team their all.”

It is easy to see what Stokes means. This summer, he captained England in four Tests in five weeks. In the week off, the ODI team played three matches in Amsterdam. Two days after the last Test concluded, England began a dizzying run of 12 white-ball matches in 24 days in different corners of the country. Exactly halfway through, Stokes announced his decision.

Now, Covid-19 is playing its part in this. The Amsterdam matches were delayed from 2021, as was the fourth Test, against India. That has put a squeeze on the schedule.

So this is an extreme year, but things are not improving much. The new Future Tours Programme suggests that England will play plenty of cricket over the next few years.

The upshot is that there will be greater specialisation to manage workloads. With Joe Root frozen out of T20s and Buttler from Tests, Jonny Bairstow is now the only English batter really in the frame for all formats. There are bowlers – Jofra Archer, Mark Wood, Chris Woakes, Saqib Mahmood – who would like to, but they are all injured.

Stokes’ news is bad news for England fans, but bad news for ODI cricket, too. Last week, South Africa cancelled a series in Australia next year to launch their new T20 tournament. Ravichandran Ashwin, the great Indian spinner, admitted he turns ODIs off when they are on TV, because they are losing relevance.

ODIs have been marginalised by the pandemic, the easiest item to squeeze out, because Tests are the premium product (often a loss-leading one, too) and T20s – at domestic and international level – are the gateway drug. There is no longer an elite 50-over competition in English men’s cricket, with the Royal London Cup shoved beneath the Hundred, robbing it of England’s best white-ball talent.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Stokes’ career has reflected this. Since winning England the 2019 World Cup, he has barely played in England’s diminishing ODI schedule. It may be that he returns in a year’s time for a tilt at England’s World Cup defence, but Stokes is an all or nothing character and breaking back in will be hard.

Between 2015 and 2019, Stokes was a masterful ODI cricketer. Before 2015, he struggled to pace things as he was shunted up and down the order, in and out of the side. Since 2019, he has not played much. But for those four years, Stokes was superb. He did not make many hundreds (three) but, from No5, he was supremely consistent, and extremely adaptable, averaging 50 and striking at 95. He was a handy bowler (impactful if not consistent), too.

The 2019 World Cup was his career in microcosm: he made five scores between 79 and 89 (two of them not out, two of them in defeats, when others did not stand up). The most famous, of course, came in the final, when he hauled England to a Super Over, with the help of a little luck. He batted in the Super Over, and helped England to just enough runs.

That day will forever be central to his legacy. The next chapter of his career, though, will be all about the red ball. He is available to the T20 side, but has not played that much of late either, and is not in the squad for the matches against South Africa this month or turning out in the Hundred. He may play in this year’s World Cup, but will be desperately short of match practice.

Stokes has made clear by turning down this year’s IPL that Test cricket is his first love and central passion. He not only wants to help improve England’s team, but a format that he feels is ailing globally. This retirement will give him time and energy to do so, but that does not mean it is a decision he wants to make.

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