The unflappable, extraordinary Mr Stokes

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20 Aug 2019 | 02:44 PM
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Arjun Ganesh

The unflappable, extraordinary Mr Stokes

England's all-round superstar has come a full circle

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September 2017, Alex Hales and Ben Stokes are caught on CCTV footage engaging in a drunken brawl outside a club in Bristol. 

A few hours later, the then director of cricket for England, Andrew Strauss, recalls anxiously waiting with Stokes’ wife Clare for him to be released from jail. 

What happened next was what Strauss described as a character-defining moment. “What struck me as soon as he came out was actually his character, because he stood up and said: ‘I’ve got this horribly wrong - I apologise sincerely for what I’ve done here.’ 

Fast forward to August 2018 and Stokes heaved a huge sigh of relief at a Bristol crown court after a jury ruled in his favour. 

It ended an 11-month ordeal for the English all-rounder who had engaged in a late night brawl in September 2017. 

There have been multiple instances where sportspersons begin their careers in a blistering manner before falling into oblivion for a variety of reasons. 

Paul Gascoigne, Jesse Ryder, Robin Friday, Laxman Sivaramakrishnan are a few whose careers declined drastically due to acts of personal indiscipline. 

It can be categorically stated that it would have been a great loss to the cricketing world had Stokes gone down the same route but such was not the ill-fate of the sport. The strapping Durham all-rounder marked a phenomenal turnaround culminating in unprecedented World Cup success. 

Trials and tribulations have laced a career that had taken the ideal trajectory towards reaching a pinnacle in a short-lived period. 

His first awakening, a rude one at that, came at the iconic Eden Gardens in April, 2016. A near 60,000-strong crowd packed into the arena as the game reached a nervy conclusion. 19 runs and six balls stood between England and their second World T20 title. 

The big screen displayed Stokes with his face buried in his palms and crouched on the side of the Eden strip, distraught and devastated after Carlos Brathwaite swiped every ball out of the park. 

At that moment, Stokes probably wished he could burrow a hole from central Kolkata and tunnel his way straight to Durham, avoiding the shutterbugs and ignominy of what unfolded. 

But being the son of rugby league player Gerard Stokes, Ben picked himself up, dusted himself off, and with a sheer sense of conviction and perseverance, showed stomach to right the wrong. 

The process was one that would most definitely be laborious, and required a near monk-like demeanor when it came to patience. Not quite the attributes Stokes possessed as he was known to be a part of the English cricketing culture that included letting loose. 

As fate would have it, a year-and-a-half on from Eden, Stokes’ worst nightmare began to pan out, one that would leave scars like a branded horse and forever change his life. Bristol was the setting, and a complex, inconclusive clutch of reasons the cause. 

For a man scaling up to the upper echelons of the sport, it was a rude awakening but majorly due to his sheer lack of awareness. In the aftermath, Stokes was stripped of vice captaincy as he attended trials to ascertain the accuracy on how the evening of September 27 panned out. 

It was a tough call for England to keep out a player of his caliber but the whip had to be brought down and it was. Stokes was left out of the Ashes 2017-18 squad as he was expected to reflect and repent on his actions. 

It was a short-lived exile as the then 26-year-old was included for the subsequent tour against his nation of birth – New Zealand. His impact was immediate as he produced a match-winning unbeaten 63 in the second ODI, taking England home by four wickets. 

Thereafter, it was a juggling act between courts and the cricket ground led to fears that he was going to lose everything he had, especially since he was in blistering form and fitter than ever before the brawl. Voicing concerns, Stokes said in an interview: “Thinking all this is going to be taken away from me might be the thing that has changed the way I do things. I was that close to my career ending and being thrown away just like that. Maybe that is it.” 

Since, it has been a wonderful phase in his career with plenty of positives after finally being in the clear with his acquittal. The World Cup could not have come at a better time and it was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man, as Stokes showed tremendous character and responsibility as the Cup finally ‘came home’. 

England were expectedly favourites having risen to the top of the one day international charts after the 2015 World Cup debacle but a few lapses in performance threatened to derail their campaign. Even in moments like that it was Stokes who stood steady amidst the ruins. In the 64-run loss against Australia in the group phase, it was Stokes that was belligerent with 89 and could have gone further had it not been for Mitchell Starc’s wonder Yorker. 

The defeat to Australia was England’s second of their campaign, since going down narrowly to Sri Lanka. Even that clash had Stokes stamp his authority on it, taking his side to the verge of victory with a well-compiled 82. 

Stokes would have been left wondering what more he needed to do for his side to emerge victorious, but that didn’t deflate the man, who by now had seen it all. Playing a herculean knock in regulation time of the showpiece World Cup final and then, squeezing every bit of energy left, Stokes scripted glory for the Three Lions in a sumptuous finale. His redemption was surely complete now! 

His exploits in the final of the quadrennial saw him receive widespread praise from all corners of the globe. He was a superstar once again! A more mature one at that. 

Then came his next challenge, this time in the red-ball format. Stokes was once again handed vice-captaincy of the Test side, Undeterred by a mediocre showing in the first Test at Edgbaston, Stokes romped to a hundred in the second Ashes Test at Lord’s on August 18 to clearly signal his intent and ever-prevalent ability to come good when the situation demands it. 

It was by no means easy for Stokes, who should have been having an early shower if not for David Warner and Australia’s misjudgement with DRS. The southpaw had the rub of the green as Warner grassed a regulation chance at first slip, and then Paine refused a review for leg before that would have left Stokes a dead man walking. But it was the inevitable as Stokes surged towards his seventh Test century in, much like his career, a scratchy, yet most efficient manner. 

Constructively changing a negative situation into a positive one is what sets the best apart from the rest. “It sounds silly but, could Bristol have been the best thing that could have happened to me? Who knows? But maybe in terms of my way of thinking,” revealed Stokes to a cricket website earlier this year. 

Joe Root has not been at his best with the burden of captaincy bludgeoning his all-round form. That presents Stokes as an automatic next choice for the post. Whatever the future holds, it has been a story for the ages that still promises more thrills than spills.

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