Exploring the Disappearance of the World-Class All-Rounder in Test Cricket

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2015

Despite Ben Stokes' glittering performance at Lord's, the genuine Test all-rounder appears to be gradually disappearing from the game.
Despite Ben Stokes' glittering performance at Lord's, the genuine Test all-rounder appears to be gradually disappearing from the game.Associated Press

On Monday evening, an irrepressible buzz still emanating from St John's Wood, it will have happened to countless people. When the working week resumed on Tuesday, it will have happened to countless more. And if it hasn't happened to you yet, don't worry, you can bet that it will

For this writer, it happened in a north London pub late on Monday. Two guys at a table a few metres away were discussing the fifth day at Lord's, both feverishly speaking over the top of each other. About cricket—something that just doesn't happen in this watering hole dripping with football memorabilia.

Of the two, one had clearly been at the ground; the other had watched on television. The guy who'd been at Lord's couldn't get his words out quick enough, still seemingly gripped by an excitement that was affecting the clarity of his sentences—when he described the Moeen Ali catch that clinched England's victory over New Zealand, it was hard to tell if he'd spent a day at the cricket or four days at Glastonbury. 

But then it happened: Amid this chaotic conversation, he put his beer down on the table (the universally recognised I'm-about-to-say-something-important pub gesture), a look of wonderment spreading across his face. "Oh, but that over," he said. The other guy nodded back, knowingly.

All over London, and around England, countless others will have heard the same thing that night and ever since. "Oh, but that over." In the coming days, weeks or months, someone will say it to you as well. Or within earshot of you. 

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"That over" had been bowled by Ben Stokes: six balls, four brutes, three batsmen, two beaten edges, two victims and one captivated audience. 

"Lord's was rocking," said Alastair Cook afterward, speaking to the England Cricket YouTube channel. Some statement, because Lord's doesn't rock. Lord's murmurs, claps, applauds and cheers. Politely. 

But Stokes had it rocking. On the live coverage, Sky Sports quickly compared the tattooed redhead to Andrew Flintoff. The network then showed Flintoff's version of "that over," the one against Australia at Edgbaston in 2005. In a piece of gripping symmetry, the celebration pose was the same: Arms pointed to the sky, stood in the middle of the pitch, team-mates roaring around him.

Ben Stokes dismissed Kane Williamson and Brendon McCullum with consecutive deliveries to propel England to victory over New Zealand.
Ben Stokes dismissed Kane Williamson and Brendon McCullum with consecutive deliveries to propel England to victory over New Zealand.Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Was Lord's watching its new Flintoff? It couldn't be sure, but that's why it was rocking—because of the possibilities. Six exhilarating balls had thrilled the famous ground, but it was more than that. It was who had delivered them. What he'd done the day before.

After his thunderous hundred, Stokes' one-over dismantling of New Zealand was the second episode of a two-part onslaught—Test cricket's rarest commodity. The sort only a staggeringly talented all-rounder can produce. And staggeringly talented all-rounders entrance crowds like no other. There's an untamed edge to them that stirs something other players can't. It's why these two guys in the pub were so animated, gushing about a day of Test cricket. 

But the pair's excitement gave rise to questions: When was the last time we saw such an all-round explosion? Had Stokes' barrage felt so dazzling because it was a type of performance we'd been deprived of? Where are the other Stokes's in Test cricket? Where have all the all-rounders gone?

It's been six years since Flintoff retired; a decade since his peak. More recently, Jacques Kallis departed the Test arena 18 months ago, but when he did, it had been five years since he'd truly excelled with the bat and ball. 

Before them: Shaun Pollock, Kapil Dev, Ian Botham, Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, Tony Greig, Garry Sobers, Mike Procter, Richie Benaud and Keith Miller, among others (some might include Wasim Akram). Exceptional talents. But look around now; the all-rounder crop is thin. 

Sitting atop the ICC Test All-Rounder Rankings is Bangladesh's Shakib Al Hasan. A fine player, yes, but one whose stats are bloated due to more than 30 percent of his matches coming against Zimbabwe and the West Indies. Joining Shakib in the top 10 are Ryan Harris, Stuart Broad and Dale Steyn. In their respective teams, those men bat at nine, 10 and nine. Steyn averages 14 with the bat. 

Also present are Vernon Philander, Mitchell Johnson, Mohammad Hafeez, Shane Watson and Daniel Vettori. The latter is retired, and the other four are essentially specialists in one discipline, who chip in intermittently in the other.

Philander's batting has shown promise, but he has just four scores above 37. Johnson's batting is notoriously boom or bust, and his averages are still the wrong way around for an all-rounder (his bowling mark is higher than his batting mark). Hafeez, despite being a spinner on the subcontinent, doesn't average one wicket per innings. And in the last three calendar years, Watson's bowling average has been 49, 49 and 70. 

Aside from Stokes, we are all the Stokes types? The guys trying to emulate Flintoff, Kallis, Khan, Botham, Sobers and Co.?

ICC Test All-Rounder Rankings
1Shakib Al HasanBAN380
2Vernon PhilanderSA341
3Ravichandran AshwinIND318
4Mitchell JohnsonAUS291
5Ryan HarrisAUS255
6Stuart BroadENG254
7Mohammad HafeezPAK244
8Shane WatsonAUS223
9Dale SteynSA219
10Daniel VettoriNZ191
ESPN Cricinfo

Renowned cricket writer Jarrod Kimber of ESPN Cricinfo believes such players have been micromanaged out of the game, as he told Bleacher Report this week: "All-rounders are natural creatures. You can make a batsman who bowls a slightly better bowler. You can make a bowler who bats a slightly better batter. You cannot make an all-rounder—someone who can bat in the top seven and bowl in the first four bowlers. They are born that way. They are like unicorns or the dodo bird.

"And in the amateur era, when cricketers generally made it through their own natural talents and hard work, they were allowed to shine.

"Now the game is micromanaged. Now all players work on their games. All players are improved. Batsmen can spend more than 40 hours a week on their batting, bowlers too, and that is just practice. How can you do 80 hours on both? How can you keep improving?

"It has given rise to a new kind of all-rounder that no one talks about. The birth of wicketkeepers who are now all, or virtually all, all-rounders."

Perhaps a prime example of such micromanagement is Shane Watson. Though a succession of injuries have hindered the Australian's bowling potential, his batting has taken precedence over all else since a promotion to the top of the order during the 2009 Ashes series. In 2012, he even considered dropping his work with the ball altogether, such is the pressure now for players to be specialists in their fields. One senses Angelo Mathews is trending the same way. Ditto for Corey Anderson. 

Kimber's stance is also backed up by the rapid emergence of the wicketkeeper-batsman—a newer type excelling in two disciplines. Among keepers to have played 20 or more Tests, 10 of the 12 highest batting averages belong to men who've played in the last decade.

Thus, have those who've followed in the steps of Adam Gilchrist become 2015's closest equivalents to the Khans, Bothams and Hadlees of the 1980s?

AB de Villiers has continued the trend set by Adam Gilchrist, seeing the wicketkeeper position transformed to an all-rounder role.
AB de Villiers has continued the trend set by Adam Gilchrist, seeing the wicketkeeper position transformed to an all-rounder role.Gallo Images/Getty Images

But there are other factors at play, too. In the last calendar year, Sri Lanka contested 52 matches in all formats, across seven countries; England contested 45 across six countries; India 41 across five; Australia 40 across five; South Africa 37 across six.

To that workload, add the Indian Premier League, the Big Bash League, the Caribbean Premier League, the Champions League Twenty20 and an array of other domestic matches. The schedule is relentless. The incessant travel, for anyone who hasn't done stints like it, is tiring.

Modern cricketers are among the hardest working sportsmen on the planet right now, and that's if they only practice one discipline. Try doing two and then somehow keep your body intact, arms and legs still attached to where they're supposed to.

As such, it could be that scheduling is playing a significant role in pushing all-rounders away from the Test arena and toward an exclusive, Twenty20 status, as ESPN Cricinfo's Freddie Wilde told Bleacher Report this week: "Part of the reason for the demise of Test all-rounders is that the all-rounder is a hugely valued commodity in T20 cricket, which often offers more money, more fame and a brighter future.

"Three of the most exciting cricketers in the world are all-rounders and all three of them no longer play Test cricket but are at the forefront of change in T20: Dwayne Bravo, Kieron Pollard and Andre Russell.

"Powerful hitting, athletic fielding and frugal bowling are in high demand as individual assets in T20, let alone within one player. And when three leagues, the Big Bash League, Indian Premier League and Caribbean Premier League, take up five months in the calendar, it becomes hard for these players to bridge the divide between Test cricket and such leagues."

There have been some who've bucked that trend, however, with Australia's Mitchell Marsh a notable example. Marsh, just 23, made his Test debut in the UAE last year, but missed a chunk of the Australian summer after suffering a hamstring injury against India in Brisbane. Yet, in a move designed to strengthen his Test credentials, the all-rounder then chose to skip the recently concluded IPL season to prepare his body for the rigours of the longer format.

And yet, even so, will Marsh grow to be a Test all-rounder? Does he have a future in both disciplines? His first-class record and brief Test record point toward a gradual evolution to specialist batsman, similar to Watson or Mathews or Anderson. At this stage, Marsh looks far more likely to be a No. 6 whose bowling is "useful" or "handy"; not a No. 6 whose bowling is a weapon. Not a true all-rounder of the purest form. 

And so many of the world's other multi-skilled Test players feel similar—Hafeez, Johnson, Philander, Moeen Ali, James Neesham, Mark Craig, JP Duminy and so on.

Might Stokes be the only emerging player who fits the description? Could he be the next Flintoff or Botham for England?

Possibly. Who knows. But even if he is, in cricket's current landscape, he seems to be part of a dying breed. The type that can make Lord's rock. The type that forces you to put your beer down. "Oh, but that over."

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