Ashes 2019: Stokes, Kusal and Test cricket's dizzying hybrid era

By Sports Desk August 26, 2019

Nineteen from the over, the ball soaring into the crowd. Ben Stokes had seen this story before from the other side.

West Indies needed 19 as England's premier all-rounder stood at the end of his mark to conclude the 2016 World T20 final. Six, six, six and another six from Carlos Brathwaite later and expectations of glory were in tatters.

A more successful final outing under his belt, Stokes was the man dishing out punishment to the previously imperious Josh Hazlewood at Headingley on Sunday, orchestrating a mind-boggling chase of 359 and a one-wicket win that will forever have its place in cricket history.

Decades from now the highlights packages of those audacious exploits will be pored over time and again, but it is interesting to consider how this Test era – apparently Stokes' world with the rest of us merely living in it – might be viewed overall.

Because this most grand and elegant of team sports has never seemed so unhinged.

Kusal the Durban destroyer

At the start of last month, only six times in the previous century had a team won a Test having been dismissed for under 100 in their first innings. England have since done it twice.

Stokes' unbeaten 135 has understandably been described as a once-in-a-lifetime innings, but Kusal Perera did something remarkably similar in February.

Needing 304 to beat South Africa, Kusal was joined by last man Vishwa Fernando with the score 226-9. The Jack Leach of the piece, Fernando was relatively prolific in compiling six not out.

Meanwhile Kusal bludgeoned his way to an unbeaten 153, with 12 fours and five sixes. It secured a one-wicket win from beyond the wildest dreams or nightmares of those involved.

There is not a more daunting pace trio to successfully take to the cleaners in world cricket than Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and James Pattinson, as Stokes and his broken helmet will attest. The combination of Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada and Duanne Olivier that Kusal faced down comes pretty close.

Like Stokes, Kusal is a white-ball destroyer. He boasts five ODI centuries and 10 T20I fifties. On Monday, he bagged a second straight duck as Sri Lanka were walloped by an innings and 65 runs in Colombo. New Zealand's masterful seam duo of Trent Boult and Tim Southee were seldom manoeuvred far from the cut strip.

The hosts' 122 all out demonstrated little of the skill or inclination needed to save a draw with rain around. It had far more in common with England's 67 all out at Headingley on Friday, where Stokes - a picture of dedication and self-denial until his prolonged pyrotechnics in the second innings - played the most abysmal shot of them all.

This is the boom and bust of modern Test cricket. Two sides of the same golden coin.

Twenty20 vision

Once a cash cow and now the untamed money monster, T20 and its global franchise leagues increasingly set the sport's direction of travel.

The international schedule has been tailored accordingly, often in vain, to keep the biggest stars in their country's colours. Preparation, tour matches and the repetition required for mastery when facing the red ball and first-class cricket's particular challenges are all lacking.

It means the likes of Hazlewood and Cummins or Boult and Southee can approach most top orders with glee if conditions offer them anything. Technique and temperament are always likely to be in the bowler's favour.

The other side of this is batsmen think all things can be achieved at all times. Stokes' Leeds barrage has been mentioned alongside the best knocks from greats such as Brian Lara and VVS Laxman. But none of those hallowed names could have called upon the thumping, ramping and reverse-slogging solutions he had to hand.

Stokes, Kusal and their ilk have honed these skills in pressure situations around the world. They know they can pull it off under suffocating pressure.

In what must be a grim realisation, the bowlers know it too. Stokes knew it as Brathwaite made merry. The best riposte can come from mystery spin or extreme pace. See Jofra Archer, another stalwart of cricket's new age making an indelible mark upon its oldest contest.

As schedules become ever more contorted and stretched, with first-class competitions neglected and shunted to the margins, there will be a reckoning for Test cricket that might not be pretty.

In the meantime, we at least get to enjoy this glorious, baffling hybrid of infinite possibility. Cricket featuring all you ever knew producing results you never considered for a moment. What a time to be alive in Ben Stokes' world.

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