They’re used to dealing with floods at New Road but on Friday the famous old ground was hit by a hurricane. It went by the name of Ben Stokes, England’s newly crowned Test captain unleashing a record-breaking 88-ball 161 on his return for Durham and coming agonizingly close to striking six sixes in a single over.
Only two men in the history of first-class cricket have achieved the feat – Sir Garfield Sobers in 1968 and Ravi Shastri in 1985 – and once Stokes sent the first five deliveries of Josh Baker’s 20th over into the crowd, bringing up a 64-ball century, a hush descended. Could a third member be about to join this elite club?
It wasn’t to be, Stokes duffing his contact with the final ball from Worcestershire’s 18-year-old left-arm spinner and seeing a mere four result. Some 34 runs had been raided from the over but you would scarcely have known it, Stokes recoiling in frustration at an opportunity missed. What a ridiculous sport.
Nevertheless, it was a memorable moment in an innings that still secured two slices of history. Stokes had eclipsed Paul Collingwood’s 75-ball hundred against Somerset in 2005 – previously the fastest by a Durham player – and after lunch, when Brett D’Oliveira was carved into the stand that bears the leg-spinner’s family name, he had secured the record of 17 sixes in a County Championship innings.
And having espoused a team-first philosophy in his first press conference as England captain in the week, one can only assume that Stokes drew more satisfaction from the position of outright dominance that he and David Bedingham, 135 from 175 balls, had secured in this Division Two encounter.
Declaring on 580 for six once Stokes and Bedingham had holed out, Durham set about their mission to claim 20 wickets with purpose. By 5.53pm local time, when bad light stopped playing with 12 overs of a chilly second day remaining, Worcestershire were 169 for six with Matthew Potts claiming figures of five for 36.
On another day Potts might well have been the headliner. The 23-year-old right-armer from Sunderland has added a yard of pace over the winter and, having been one of England’s standby players for the recent Caribbean tour, the form he has already shown this season – 23 wickets at 19 – May see this status upgraded.
But as waspish as Potts looked, no one was knocking Stokes off the top of the bill. Like a younger Lord Botham, among those watching on from the hospitality tent, he was impossible to ignore. Even with the ball, while ticking an important box after recent knee problems, he drew gasps, nearly striking in his first over when Ed Barnard squirted one back onto his stumps only for the bails to remain in place.
This was the only time that the force was not with Stokes, having earlier sauntered out to the middle in the third over of the day with 360 for four on the board and Bedingham unbeaten on 81. Whether England can lay such a platform this summer remains to be seen but, having stated his desire to return to No 6 in the Test team, this was a smidgeon of early vindication for the self-imposed demotion.
Stokes had made a watchful start too, cracking a couple of early fours but sitting 12 not out by the time he had faced 30 deliveries. Thereafter it was utter carnage, the 30-year-old signaling the charge when he launched Barnard towards the neighboring hotel for the first of a number of blows which threatened its windows.
Amid the charge to 147 not out by lunch came a remarkable 10-ball sequence in which Stokes ransacked 53 runs and gave Baker a story to tell the grandchildren one day. By this stage, Stokes had struck 15 sixes and wasted no time drawing level with the previous record holders – Andrew Symonds and Graham Napier – when he drove Ben Gibbon’s first ball after the interval into a sightscreen.
Picking out a shot of the day was almost impossible, such was the smorgasbord of unbridled aggression on show. A personal favorite was a charging swiveled pull off Joe Leach that flew flat and square but the 1,000 or so spectators present at New Road will doubtless have their own to tell others about.
This was a flat pitch, a tired attack and an international player operating on another level to the mere mortals around him. But England, having turned to Stokes in their hour of need and asked him to captain what is a flatlining Test team, will hope this particular hurricane is just the start of storm season.
As the man himself put it at close range: “It was a good day, wasn’t it?”