Ben Stokes: A showman and a critical organ that pumps life into the sport

Suvajit Mustafi
Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Ben Stokes is a story. Ben Stokes is a showman. Ben Stokes is an enigma. Ben Stokes is about redemption. Ben Stokes was born for headlines. And headlines of all sections. 

Sir Geoffrey Boycott breathes Yorkshire. At his Mecca, called Headingly, Boycott made the statement after the miracle, and it wasn’t for a Yorkshire man. Rather a New Zealand-born Durham lad, who has Maori origins.

“In more than 50 years of playing and watching, it was the greatest innings that I have seen,” said Boycott, referring to a show that would be spoken off till the time the sport exists.

Ben Stokes is a story. Ben Stokes is a showman. Ben Stokes is an enigma. Ben Stokes is about redemption. Ben Stokes was born for headlines. And headlines of all sections. 

Sporting heroics, sporting tragic, sporting villain, breaking roofs in auctions, Virat Kohli’s lip-reads, driving offence, pub brawls, prison, mocking a specially-abled, Maori-origin, secret-funding of his cricket, his father’s support for New Zealand… 

Volume two of Ben Stokes’ autobiography, whenever it releases, will have record pre-orders.

That innings at Leeds apart, Stokes got a crucial three for 56 in the second innings of the Test. Who cares? Those are stuff for mortals.

Does Stokes rise to occasions? Certainly, like any other great. But, he has a magnetic pull to attract the grandest of occasions and most unusual of events.

A month back, he scored a six off the last over in a World Cup Final. A six that came off an overthrow, off a bat deflection. Had Martin Guptill misfielded that, he would have got a four and not six. The World Cup Trophy could have found another hand. 

Around a year back, Stokes had one foot in the prison for the affray charges.

Around two years back, the knell on his career could be heard aloud when he a CCTV footage showed him on a punching spree. Earlier that year, he had fetched the highest price in the IPL auctions.

Go another year back, his four balls in the final over of the 2016 WorldT20 cost England the tournament at Kolkata. Less than a year after another all-rounder Carlos Brathwaite reduced him to a meme, Stokes was already the most sought after T20 cricketer. Nine months after the Kolkata pounding, Stokes would return to the venue to beat India in an ODI and win the Man of the Match. 

Was 2015 quiet? He found another to way to get out – obstructing the field, months before he made jaw drops in South Africa with that 258.

In the Ashes 2013-14, Stokes was England’s sole batting saving grace against a rampant Mitchell Johnson. He was England’s lone centurion. It was his debut series. He followed that with a terrible one in West Indies. 

Some dig axe on their foot accidentally. Stokes chose to dig his foot onto an axe. He missed out 2014 World T20 after breaking his wrist when he punched a locker in the dressing room following his dismissal in the final T20 of that series. It became a pattern.

Later that year, Stokes would get three consecutive ducks against the touring Indians to be given a temporary break from the game. He found his way back to the news after testifying against Ravindra Jadeja and altercations with Kohli. 

From the highs to lows, Stokes finds himself as the centre points of events. And he keeps rediscovering himself.

On Sunday, August 25, 2019, Stokes pulled off one of the greatest sporting shows to ensure England a chance at the urn. The defeat, which looked inevitable, would have meant England not winning an Ashes at home for the first time since 2001.

Stokes finished with a 219-ball 135 not out. When the innings started, he evoked memories of Boycott at his ground. Stokes scored his third run off the 67th ball he faced. The next run, he scored was a boundary, clipped off Nathan Lyon off this 74th ball. 

When Jack Leach walked in, England needed 73 with one wicket in hand. Stokes was batting on 61 off 174 balls. From there on, the sequence went:

Stokes: 0 0 0 6 0 1 0 0 0 2 1 6 0 0 0 6 1 0 1 2 0 6 2 1 4 6 6 2 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 4 1 0 0 6 0 0 0 4 - 74 (45)
Leach: 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 – 1 (17)*

This was the first time in 131 years that a side that were bowled out under 70 had gone on to win a Test. This was England’s highest successful chase.

Stokes’ innings will be locked in the treasure chest consisting the magic shows from Brian Lara (1999), VVS Laxman (2001) and Kusal Perera (2019). Arguably, many will vote Stokes’ ahead for the occasion that kept England breathing in the series. 

Another thing to note would be, Stokes doesn’t play in the side only for his batting.

Is Stokes the greatest all-rounder? Inarguably, no. Has he played the greatest knock in cricket? Arguably, yes. Can he do it again? Inarguably, yes!!!

June 2019. At the same venue, Leeds, Stokes quietly watched his batting partners choke against Sri Lanka in the World Cup. All he wished was a little support. He was doing what he did to Australia. He was left stranded at 82 as England’s hope-torch for semi-final spot blinked. The tail almost betrayed him in the World Cup Final too. With a puff of fortune in his pocket, Stokes played another blinder in that game to ensure the England wardrobe doesn’t remain barren of an ODI World Cup Trophy.

Fortune followed him at the Leeds Test too, but not before he had done something spellbinding. Life throws excellent and bad lucks aplenty. What’s the harm in making the hay when the fortune still shines? 

Despite Stokes’ heroics in the recent times, questions often rose before this Test, ‘Could he ever do the Ian Botham of 1981 or Andrew Flintoff of 2005?’

Stokes has done more. He has stamped his name on an English Summer. He’s making cricket relevant in England again.

Can he win England the Ashes? There’s never a definitive ‘no’ with him around.

Great all-rounders

If averages are a parameter for sole judging, Stokes wouldn’t have still qualified in the great category. He doesn’t average over 40 with the bat. He doesn’t average below 30 with the ball. It’s not Stokes’ fault entirely that England haven’t been able to use him to his full potential. He has been used as a main batter and an extra bowler. He may not be a Botham with the ball, but he is no less than a Flintoff with the red cherry. Stokes’ strength lies in his commitment to the result.

About the numbers, they don’t speak ill of him as well. He has set a voyage to top the following list. Why? Because he is expected to only get better from hereon. 

List of big all-rounders after 55 Tests and how Stokes stacks up!

(Qualification: Minimum 3,000 runs and 100 wickets)

score table

Many in the above list ripened with age. Vettori is a classic example, who had a contrasting second half to his Test career. The expectations are same with Stokes – to get better in the next half.

Life and cricket

Downfalls lead to depression, which often leads to evasive actions. But to some, deep introspection. Life is about ups, downs and those little triumphing moments. A low phase doesn’t mean the world has fallen. The formula for the resurrection is in the box of willingness, hiding in some corner of the mind, draped in lethargy and insecurities. A good guide (if you find a correct one), at best, can help you find that box. Disrobing is your job.

Stokes has realised the mantra maybe. 

If life gives you lemons, it will provide you with the apples too. You need to believe in that and have faith. 'Patience' is a much more serious word than what it sounds and in contexts that it's used. And more often than not, you alone can make a difference. The massive one.

Life is so Test cricket, isn't it? A 67 doesn’t end your world. High probabilities of ‘could bes’ don’t always get you home. Even the judges can make the gravest of mistakes in the direst of times. Life is about those imperfections. Life is also a reflection of the decisions that you make. A hasty one like Tim Paine’s DRS can alter your course. It still gives you chances, and you see the difference when you grab it, unlike Nathan Lyon. And yes, a singular entity need not just be a catalyst, but be the difference-making force.

Test cricket has never been better. 2019 had already seen Perera. Folks like Stokes are pumping more life to it.

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