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The Debate: Who is the greatest England cricketer of the 21st century?

Who is England's greatest cricketer of the 21st century?

In the last two decades alone, we have had the pleasure of watching some of the game's greatest individuals don an England shirt and deliver majestic performances across all three formats.

From Ben Stokes to Andrew Flintoff, James Anderson to Stuart Broad and Sir Alistair Cook to Joe Root, there is a superb variety of players among the pantheon of English cricketing greats.

But who is the greatest? Writers in the bet365 News Team have shared their answers.

England's greatest cricketer? Easy, it's Ben Stokes.

From one of the greatest Test innings of all-time to hauling his country over the line in World Cup finals across different formats, Ben Stokes has become a gladiator-like figure who is adored by English cricket fans.

Cricket is a numbers game more so than any other sport. There is a fascination, almost an obsession, with batting averages, centuries, five-wicket hauls and economy rates.

Ben Stokes is never going to be at the top of a list when it comes to individual stats.

But the ability to change the direction of matches, the skill to switch gears from the sublime to the ridiculous and the downright stubbornness of refusing to be beaten, even when the odds are stacked against you, now that takes a truly special cricketer.

Stokes’ career has not been without adversity; we have seen off-the-field issues, a missed Ashes Tour and an infamous end to the 2016 T20 World Cup final.

Yet he has taken each setback in his stride, using the pain and experience as motivation to further enhance his never-say-die attitude to cricket.

The Durham all-rounder was producing match-winning performances for his country long before his fairytale summer of 2019.

His 258 against South Africa in Cape Town in 2016 was simply breath-taking, while his performances with the ball, back in the days when he had a left knee to accompany to the right one, ensured that England never had to address the old quandary of going with a four-man attack or a five-man one.

He was proving himself to be a world-class operator, but what happened in 2019 propelled his status to a level we had never seen before in English cricket.

A 50-over World Cup final on home soil against New Zealand, the country of his birth, provided the perfect stage for Stokes to cement his place in cricketing history.

Chasing a par score of 241, Stokes stood tall and was England’s only hope when Jos Buttler was dismissed with five overs to spare, with 46 runs still required for victory.

As England’s tail struggled to wag, Stokes dragged his country to a Super Over when New Zealand appeared to be on the brink of victory.

Out on his feet, Stokes then came out to bat in the one-over decider and struck a key boundary as England eventually won the World Cup by the barest of margins.

His herculean effort was then arguably topped on a sunny afternoon at Headingley just a month later.

A gutsy bowling spell was followed by some resolute rear-guard action earlier in the crucial third Ashes Test, before his solo onslaught on the Australia bowling attack on Day Four resulted in the most remarkable of Test victories.

Not content with his exploits in Test and One Day cricket, Stokes, typically, was at the crease as England won their second T20 World Cup in 2022, as his nerveless unbeaten half-century turned the tide in England’s favour in the face of some excellent Pakistan bowling.

Stokes has also revitalised the England Test team and signalled the start of the Bazball era, with his captaincy demonstrating a fearless brand of cricket, backed up by an exceptional cricketing brain and tactical nous.

There is no more plodding along at three runs an over, Stokes’ first instinct is to be positive and that has led to an infectious environment for a group of players who had previously under-performed as a collective for so long.

He has won games on his own, contributed enormously to England winning white-ball trophies and led the way for a future generation of English players.

He’s also produced some staggering moments in the field, personified by his catch in the slips against Australia at Trent Bridge in 2015 and his miraculous one-handed effort against South Africa in the opening game of the 2019 World Cup.

There has been no England cricketer who has done what Stokes has done across multiple formats. 

Stokes has been the main event in many of his country’s greatest triumphs and he has done it all with one knee.

You cannot do that, Ben Stokes.

Oh Jimmy, Jimmy... Anderson is the answer!

The King of Swing. The most international Test wickets of any pace bowler.

In an argument of who’s the greatest, longevity is a key component.

At 41 years of age, James Anderson boasts longevity by the bucket loads and his durability means he is still competing at the pinnacle of Test match cricket. 

What’s perhaps even more staggering is that he’s just as dangerous as the bright-eyed 20-year-old with blonde highlights who claimed a five-fer on his England Test debut against Zimbabwe.

He’s accumulated another 685 Test wickets since then, cementing his status as the world’s most prolific pace bowler and one of the best that England has ever – and will ever – produce.

Across the last two decades he’s experienced the lows but more importantly, he’s been a pivotal figure in England’s incredible highs and in swinging conditions, there’s no one better.

He knifed through Pakistan’s attack in 2010 at Trent Bridge, curving the ball both ways through the air to pick up his first ten-wicket match haul and finish with match figures of 11 for 71. When the conditions are perfect, Anderson is unstoppable.

As he racked up the numbers on home turf, many of his critics had questioned his ability to take wickets on foreign soil. Hurting from the 2006/07 Ashes whitewash, Anderson executed his revenge.

The Burnley-born ace silenced his doubters with 24 wickets in the 2010/11 Ashes series, the most of any bowler. Outswing, inswing, reverse swing, all delivered with immense accuracy; a true craftsman at work. Alistair Cook may have won Player of the Series but Anderson deserved just as many plaudits for England’s 3-1 win Down Under.

A year later in Kolkata, a venue that offers very little return for seam bowlers, Anderson was defying the laws of physics to rip through India’s batting line-up. ‘Jimmy’ got England motoring with six wickets in the third Test, leading the Three Lions to a rare series win in India; the first in 28 years.

At Headingley in 2016 he produced arguably one of his most destructive spells, blending his exemplary skill and control to take 10-45 and decimate Sri Lanka’s attack.

Anderson surpassed Sir Ian Botham’s record in 2015 to become England’s all-time wicket taker and five years later he was the first seam bowler to reach 600 wickets, while also surpassing Botham’s record of five-wicket hauls.

But it’s not just his insane collection of wickets that makes Anderson one of the greatest to grace the game.

The relentless velocity of his deliveries have made him an unnervingly troublesome prospect for even some of the greatest batters. Don’t try and weather a storm when Anderson is charging at you; it’ll suck you up and spit you back out. Just ask Virat Kohli and Steve Smith.

Anderson’s white-ball career is evidently not as prominent as Ben Stokes’, although he does have the most ODI wickets of any England player and is the 13th fastest to 250 wickets in the 50-over format.

And as magnificent as he is with a ball in his hand, he’s also proven he can be reliable at the crease.

Against India in 2014, Anderson delivered the highest score by an England no.11 with 81 runs, dragging England back into contention with a fruitful partnership alongside Joe Root.

If he’s not scoring the runs, he’ll do his utmost to ensure his batting partner has the best opportunity of maximising an innings; Jimmy holds the record for most not outs in Test cricket with an impressive 102.

His performances in the 2023 Ashes series fell way below his impeccable standards and no one will know that better than Anderson. Many have wrote him off before and all of them have been proven wrong.

Whether you think his best days are behind him or not, the thought of life after Anderson is daunting.

For now The King will keep on swinging and as he gears up for what will be his final tour of India, Anderson will be knocking on the door of 700 Test wickets.

If that doesn’t make him the greatest, I don’t know what will.

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