Ben Stokes, don of the new era

There are moments in an athlete’s life when they acquire the aura of invincibility: Sachin Tendulkar through the 1990s, M. S. Dhoni at the 2011 World Cup, Steve Smith at the 2019 Ashes. Now Ben Stokes is starting to feel invincible.

Ben Stokes’ first-innings 176 off 255 balls followed by a swashbuckling 78 not out from 57 as an opener in the second formed the cornerstone of England’s 113-run victory in the second Test match against the West Indies in Manchester.   -  Getty Images

A once-in-a-generation cricketer. The No. 1 Test all-rounder in the world. Talisman of the England cricket team. These are just some of the many words used to describe Ben Stokes. A gunslinger one minute, the steady sheet anchor the next. From bringing the game into disrepute to becoming the poster boy of English cricket.

Stokes’ first-innings 176 off 255 balls followed by a swashbuckling 78 not out from 57 in the second as an opener formed the cornerstone of England’s 113-run victory in the second Test match against the West Indies at the Emirates Old Trafford in Manchester. A year earlier, he had helped England seal World Cup glory and had then produced an innings of bravado, genius and theatre as Joe Root and his men scripted one of the most extraordinary come-from-behind wins in the Ashes at Headingley.

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And yet, had it not been for some sheer luck, New Zealand, and not England, would have been world champion, and Australia would’ve won that Test match at Leeds had it not been for rather poor use of the Decision Review System (DRS) in the nerve-shredding final moments of the Headingley Test. The Australians were left without a review for a final lbw decision on Stokes, who would have been given out on referral.

Fortune ought to favour the brave in Test cricket, and Stokes’ belligerence has not gone unrewarded.

In his innings of 176 at Old Trafford, Stokes combined a craftsman’s patience with an artist’s flair. Over the course of 356 balls, he exhibited a willingness to play whatever kind of innings the situation dictates. Stokes seeks fluidity in his game, stressing on how he plays rather than where in the order. And yet, to weigh in purely on his batting performance would be a disservice to the adept cricketer who has been rightfully bestowed with the tag of all-rounder.

In the Test match against the West Indies at Manchester, Ben Stokes’ haul of three wickets, along with his chase to the long-off boundary to save a four off his own bowling, are allusions to why Wisden’s Leading Cricketer in the World in 2019 is a precocious talent.   -  Getty Images

 

In Manchester, his haul of three wickets — including the important scalp of Jermaine Blackwood on the stroke of tea on the final day of the match — and his chase to the long-off boundary to save a four off his own are allusions to why Wisden’s Leading Cricketer in the World in 2019 is a precocious talent.

Stokes is a vital member of the England team, especially in Tests, where the transition from one era to another has evidently begun, with the likes of Ollie Pope, Zak Crawley, Dom Bess and Dom Sibley trying to cement their places. And while Stuart Broad and James Anderson — having claimed more than 500 Test wickets each — are going strong, a changing of the guard in the pace department is a matter of when and not if, which makes the value of Stokes, a fast-bowling all-rounder, amplified in importance. Fast bowling all-rounders, of the ilk of Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee, Jacques Kallis, are a relatively rare breed today, and England will benefit if Stokes is managed well.

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However, this does not mean things have always looked up for Stokes. England’s lynchpin was arrested for his involvement in a bar brawl in Bristol in 2017, which led to him missing the Ashes, which England lost 4-0. He was found not guilty on a charge of affray shortly after, during a trial that coincided with his return in the August 2018 Test series against India, where he snapped up six for 27 in the first match at Edgbaston. English cricket may have transformed in a variety of ways since Stokes’ brush with career oblivion, but so has the player himself.

Former England captain Mike Brearley has likened Stokes to another great all-rounder — Ian Botham. “He has also got some of Botham’s qualities; he is fierce but with a human side to it and has an attacking flair — both are wonderful qualities,” Brearley said in March 2018.

While Brearley agreed that Stokes’ 2017 actions called for a strict stance on the part of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), he empathised with the New Zealand-born cricketer. “To be a young man who’s hot-blooded and a fine sportsman, you need a bit of ‘go, get ‘em’ attitude,” he weighed in before adding a cautionary note, “I don’t mean losing control, but taking the attack to the opposition.”

READ | The story of England's rise to World Cup glory

There are moments in an athlete’s life when they acquire the aura of invincibility: Sachin Tendulkar through the 1990s, M. S. Dhoni at the 2011 World Cup, Steve Smith at the 2019 Ashes. Now Stokes is starting to feel invincible.

Watching Stokes play is an exercise in instant gratification. Cue: his desperate dive for the crease in the World Cup final, the ball ricocheting off his bat and running away for a four.   -  AFP

 

“Once he started hitting the boundary more often and the crowd started really getting loud, it felt like it was going to be a close finish. With having the home crowd on their side and Ben Stokes in the form of his life, I think that helped them get across the line,” said Australian batsman Marcus Harris, recalling the final hour of Stokes’ historic innings that led England to a one-wicket win at Headingley.

Stokes has shown the knack of making things happen when the game has meandered along. He has obstructed the pace bowlers with straight-batted defiance, and then burst into life when the time is ripe. His incredible one-handed catch to dismiss South Africa’s Andile Phehlukwayo off the bowling of Adil Rashid in the World Cup last year sent the cricketing world into a tizzy. And yet these seemingly unbelievable on-field feats do not mean he is immune to failure.

Mitchell Starc’s dismissal of Ben Stokes at the World Cup comes to mind: the Australian’s yorker leaving the all-rounder’s stumps in disarray, the enduring image of Stokes holding his pose before kicking his bat in disappointment. England lost the match, and that dismissal lingered, as much for Starc’s brilliant yorker as for Stokes’ reaction. A Stokes performance, be it with the bat, ball or in the field, is never over when it’s over. The memories linger.

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In his seminal cricket work Beyond a Boundary, C. L. R. James equates cricket to visual art. “These motions are not caught and permanently fixed for us to make repeated visits to them. They are repeated often enough to become a permanent possession of the spectator which he can renew at will,” writes James. Stokes lends himself to James’ prosaic yet rigorous argument.

While watching Stokes play is an exercise in instant gratification, you are also comparing his every shot, every spell and every catch to the innumerable others you have absorbed and enjoyed. Cue: his desperate dive for the crease in the World Cup final; the ball ricocheting off his bat and consequently running away for a four; the conflicting tapestry of emotions that followed; a moment of outrageous euphoria for one and despair for 11 others on the field. Ah, the sheer drama!

An enduring image is of Ben Stokes holding his pose before kicking his bat in disappointment after being bowled by a Mitchell Starc yorker at the 2019 World Cup. England lost the match, and that dismissal lingered, as much for Starc’s brilliant yorker as for Stokes’ reaction. A Stokes performance, be it with the bat, ball or in the field, is never over when it’s over.   -  AP

 

James further writes: “Your subconscious mind appreciates cricket as a visual form, a tactile phenomenon, an art, even though your rational mind may not fully have accepted it.”

He is right. When Eoin Morgan and his men lifted the silverware at Lord’s on that fateful evening of July 14, 2019, the rational mind may not fully have come to grips with it. Likewise at the Headingley Test, when England beat Australia by the barest of margins, you couldn’t help but feel bad for the visiting side. And yet, subconsciously, one knew that the end result perhaps did justice to the experience of watching Stokes through a certain passage of play, enjoying as he displayed his craft, in both those instances.

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Back to July 2020. There was no rush to buy tickets at the counter, no Barmy Army barracking for the English cricket team from the stands. Sure, it was international cricket returning on its feet, but without clamouring fans serving as the backdrop.

But to Stokes, it didn’t matter. He went about his business as usual. Score runs. Pick wickets. Take catches. Rinse. Repeat. The script has changed; the drama hasn’t. After all, the 22 yards is but a theatre and ‘Big Ben’ has taken centre stage.