en Stokes’s decision to return to England’s 50-over side was made with one goal in mind, one that cannot be achieved until the World Cup final in Ahmedabad on November 19.
But if the man whose name now crops up in English cricket’s history books almost as regularly as the words ‘bat’ and ‘ball’ should insist on penning another entry in the meantime, then who are we to argue?
Here at the Oval, Stokes produced a stunning innings of 182 from just 124 balls, not only his highest ODI score but the highest ever by an Englishman as Jos Buttler’s side hammered New Zealand by 181 runs to take a 2-1 series lead.
Set a punchy target of 369, three early wickets from Chris Woakes in an awesome new-ball spell ensured the tourists were never seriously in the contest, Glenn Phillips’s 72 only delaying the inevitable as England, for the first time in a brief ODI summer, produced the kind of performance that will have the likes of India and Australia on notice three weeks out from the start of the World Cup.
Stokes arrived at the crease with England in Trent Boult-inspired strife for the second match in a row, the seamer having dismissed Jonny Bairstow first ball and then Joe Root in his second over to leave the hosts 13-for-two. Where England had let the rot set in deeper in Southampton on Sunday, eventually bailed out by Liam Livingstone and the lower order, here they took no backwards step, Stokes and Dawid Malan compiling a masterful partnership of 199 before the opener fell four runs short of what would have been a fifth ODI century.
Even denied that landmark as the third of what became five victims for the exceptional Boult, this was a fine day for Malan, under pressure for his World Cup place coming into this four-match series but, with just Friday’s finale at Lord’s to come, now surely secure.
The 36-year-old had made a half-century in the series opener in Cardiff last week and after skipping the trip to Southampton to be at the birth of his second child, returned immediately here to take advantage of Jason Roy’s ongoing absence, the Surrey man suffering another back spasm this morning and now running out of time to prove his fitness before the plane to India takes off. To add insult to nagging injury, it was Roy’s record innings of 180 against Australia in 2018 that was knocked off its perch by Stokes.
By the time of Malan’s dismissal, a good New Zealand review detecting a feather down the leg-side, Stokes had already notched his fastest ODI hundred, accelerating from 13 off 19 at the end of the powerplay to reach three figures only 57 balls later. Curiously, the all-rounder had failed to kick on after each of his three previous ODI tons, never going as far as to pass 102, but six years on from the most recent of those, and with time no object, he was not in wasteful mood.
Joined by Buttler, whose cameo of 38 off 24 felt like a good result for New Zealand in the circumstances, the attack went on, touring bowlers queueing up reluctantly to take their medicine as every frontline option bar Boult travelled in excess of a run-a-ball.
As ever with Stokes, the whole show was charged by a sense of jeopardy now inherent in watching England’s most decisive player hobble about on one leg, running all but the most urgent of twos via a cruise ship turning circle to avoid unnecessary strain on that chronically injured knee. Fortunately, there was plenty of ground saved by the nine maximums among his 24 boundaries, ball striking so brutish that those with the privilege of front row seats were also just about the safest in the ground.
It was with the last of them that Stokes became a record-breaker once more, moving to his final score by belting Ben Lister back over his head before falling on his sword to the same bowler soon after, caught in the deep trying to accelerate towards his country’s first one-day double-hundred.
True, England might have been a little more ruthless in burying New Zealand from that point, Stokes’s dismissal sparking a collapse that saw the final five wickets fall for only 20 runs when a score beyond 400 looked well within reach. Still, even with 11 deliveries unused, a total of 368 was England’s highest ODI score against a Test-playing nation since the World Cup four years ago.
For those hoping to dethrone the champions this autumn, that must make ominous reading.