From a long winter to the ‘Summer of Stokes’
In September 2017, Ben Stokes’s world came crashing down around him.
The then 26-year-old had become embroiled in a streetside brawl, landing punches that threw his entire career into question. He was stripped of vice-captaincy for the England Test team as proceedings against him began and was dropped from the squad for the Ashes -- which holders England would go on to lose by a comprehensive 4-0 margin.
However, that was not the first time Stokes was humiliated, even if it was the most impactful.
Three years ago, Stokes fell to the floor in agony after conceding 24 runs from the first four balls of the final over in the World T20 final. The pressure of the occasion, coupled with some ruthless flogs from Carlos Brathwaite, had snatched from England what looked a certain win.
The Christchurch native would go on to miss five months of international cricket before returning in February 2018. After he was cleared of the affray charges in August 2018, his lawyer had this to say: “This has been a very difficult period for Ben. He’s had to maintain his silence at times when many on social media and certain parts of the press predetermined his guilt long before the trial began. Now that the trial is over, Ben is keen to get back to cricket being his sole focus.”
The statement was certainly fair, with many claiming Stokes should have been banned for a year regardless of the verdict. However, the all-rounder never once brought up the issue or mentioned the histrionics of the English press. He was, as his lawyer said, focused on cricket.
From the time of return to cricket in February 2018 until the start of the World Cup, Stokes had averaged 28.92 with the bat in Test matches. His ODI batting average of 47.25 across that same period makes for good reading. He did impress with five half-centuries and was unbeaten during two of them. He finished not out three other times on 35, 26 and 20, which inflated the numbers. Of the five matches where he struck half-centuries, England lost three. In the bowling department, he had picked up just 10 wickets in the 19 ODIs where he bowled. He fared a lot better in Tests, getting 32 in 13 matches, but there was not, and perhaps it would be impossible for there to be, any sign of what was to come.
It would be remiss to not mention here the English side’s brilliance over the past two years, which saw them become the best one-day team in the world. By the time the World Cup had made its way to the island’s shores at the tail-end of May, they were labelled -- rightly as it turned out -- favourites.
It was not all easy sailing for Stokes or the hosts though. The 28-year-old did his best, but often it was not enough. He hit 89 in the opener in a win against South Africa but his battling unbeaten 82 was undone by Lasith Malinga rolling back the years to leave England needing to win at least two of their final three games. In the following game, Stokes hit 89 against Australia only to see his side lose and on the verge of exit. But, instead of being deflated, he came back again with a 79 against India before the team fired in his stead -- he only made 11 -- against New Zealand to seal a place in the semifinal against Australia, where England cantered to a win without Stokes needing to bat.
Then, on July 14, Stokes had a career-defining innings.
He came in with England on the brink of losing a World Cup final everyone expected them to win against the Kiwis. This time he would not let himself down. After soaking up the pressure for what seemed like ages as Jos Buttler attacked, he saw the side to the Super Over in dramatic fashion. But he wasn’t done yet. Exhausted and red-faced, he walked back out and did just enough for England to raise their maiden World Cup trophy. This time, the pressure of the occasion didn’t matter.
Less than a week ago, Ben Stokes was the only thing standing between Australia and the Ashes. After England were bulldozed for 67 in their first innings, Stokes came in with England on 159 for three in chase of 359. That quickly became 159 for four before Stokes contributed 50 to an 86-run stand with Jonny Bairstow to take England to 245 for five.
Disastrously, Stokes then erred with his call and Jos Buttler paid the price, run out at the non-striker’s end. That was enough to light a fire in the ambidextrous all-rounder’s belly. However, the tail was exposed after Chris Woakes lasted eight balls and one run, and most of them had no interest in staying the course, let alone getting the runs.
The rest is history. Stokes did get the runs and he did take England to a win in a game that will be talked about whenever the merits of Test cricket are mentioned. But to say it was his finest innings would almost be an injustice; it was multiple innings rolled into one and played to near perfection.
At three stages of the game, Stokes paced himself exactly as the situation demanded. He scored three off his first 73 balls. He reached his fifty off 152 balls and, with the situation becoming desperate and his partners dropping like flies, he hammered 74 off 45 balls with the help of seven sixes to get England across the line.
The one delivery that should have seen him depart was wrongly adjudged not out by the umpire but Australia -- simply in their desperation to get the last wicket -- had used up their final review only moments earlier.
Two years ago, one would not face much opposition for calling Stokes self-indulgent. This week, after reaching a milestone hundred in the Ashes, Stokes did not deign to celebrate. There was no jump, no roar, no celebration. He raised a hand to acknowledge the crowd and continued on a mission. For a minute it seemed there was only man who believed England could come away with a famous victory. Fortunately for the world champions, he was at the crease.
It was only his second century since August 2017 -- the prior one coming in the second Test of the same series -- but the ‘Summer of Stokes’ has instilled, and then refined, a desire to win that is insatiable.
It was only after ensuring the match was won that Stokes let out a roar matched by the crowd at Headingley, before crashing to his knees in a mixture of disbelief and fatigue. That expression continued into the locker room, where Stokes was pictured sitting in a chair and trying to take it all in -- much like the rest of the world was.
“I don’t think it’s completely sunk in; the main reason is we have two games to go,” Stokes said to Sky Sports News after his epic. “If we don’t get the Ashes back, what will it feel like? I will only take real satisfaction from the innings if we win back the Ashes.”
As awe-inspiring and memorable as it has been, it did not begin in 2019. If the fire of Eden Gardens all those years ago was where Stokes had been tempered, the circus at the Bristol crown court was where this tremendous mental fortitude was forged. The sun may soon set on the ‘Summer of Stokes’ and the Ashes are not won yet, but his heroics -- which have led to clamours for a knighthood already -- will stand the test of time for all seasons to come.