A year before his bust-up outside a Bristol nightclub in the second half of 2017, Ben Stokes had launched his autobiography, prophetically named Firestarter. For a majority of the time since that 2016 release, the England all-rounder has been busy trying to put out fires, several of which he himself has started.
On a bleak Thursday at The Oval, Stokes showed how far he has come on in putting out fires not of his own making with a marquee all-round performance in the opening game of the World Cup. Jason Roy, Joe Root and Eoin Morgan all made half-centuries, and Jofra Archer had the pundits eating out his hands with a titanic exhibition of unrelenting hostility. Yet, a nation took the greatest delight in Stokes’ heroics – with bat first and finally with ball. Sandwiched between the two was a wonderful stint in the field, highlighted by a catch of such magical hue that it is unlikely to be paralleled in several World Cups to come, forget about this one.
England’s commanding 104-run conquest of South Africa was just the start the tournament needed, because there is no wetter blanket than the home team playing catch up at their own party. England themselves needed the Stokes spark, missing for a while now but making a welcome appearance at the most opportune moment, on the most stately yet intimidating of stages.
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Since returning to international duty in March 2018 after a five-month absence when he was ducking in and out of courts for his part in a drunken physical altercation, Stokes has appeared somewhat weighed down by the goings-on. He had a brilliant IPL 2018 with Rising Pune Supergiants, emerging as the edition’s most valuable player, but outside of his exploits in India, he was anything but sensational. The free spirit had gone AWOL, but because England, and especially the English ODI side, was on to a good thing, they were willing to give Stokes the time he required to rediscover his moorings.
Gradually, Stokes has started to repay the faith. There is a greater calmness to his batting now, a more composed approach in which commonsense and logic have bested ego and impetuosity. He is still a dangerous, fearsome, uninhibited striker of the cricket ball, but in tempering his natural aggression and playing to the situation in conditions such as at The Oval that he doesn’t exactly relish, Stokes has reiterated that he isn’t merely a one-trick pony.
It’s hard to accept that Thursday’s was Stokes’ first World Cup appearance. He was deemed not good enough to figure in the England squad for the 2015 edition in Australia and New Zealand – good they exited in the first stage, did you say? – and as if determined to make up for lost time, the 27-year-old put on a show to remember.
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His first test came two-fifths of the way into England’s innings. Jason Roy and Joe Root had steadied the ship after the second-ball dismissal of Jonny Bairstow with a century stand when the hosts lost both set batsmen in the space of seven deliveries for the addition of just four runs. Another wicket then, and England would have been sorely tested, never mind their immense batting depth. In the past, Stokes might have tried to smash his way out of trouble. Here, he was happy to knock off the singles and sail in skipper Eoin Morgan’s slipstream, willing to alter his game both in deference to the match situation and a sluggish track that didn’t facilitate stroke-making.
His first 25 deliveries yielded just 16 without a four, yet when Stokes effortlessly shifted gears, he was through to his fifty in 45 balls. Now buzzing and primed for a blistering final flourish, he had to hold back again when Morgan and Jos Buttler fell in quick succession. Alternating between the natural ball-basher and the more contrived innings-resuscitator, he carried the second half of the batting on his shoulders, but when he fell in the penultimate over, his 89 had taken only 79 deliveries. Significantly, it was his highest score for England since his reintegration into the national side.
That alone had made England’s day, Morgan’s day. But there was more to come, courtesy a fabulous pick-up-and-throw from the deep that accounted for Dwaine Pretorius. Welcome back, Stokesy.
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Stokesy wasn’t done yet. Andile Phehlukwayo was annoying holding up England’s victory march, daring even to play a few brazen strokes. His aggression manifested itself in a slog-sweep that sailed in the air towards deep mid-wicket. Stokes, excited, came charging in; to his chagrin, he realised that he had come too far in, so it was time to backtrack. And then arch his back, fling himself behind him (if that makes sense), stick out the right mitt and reverse-cup the ball when still airborne. When you saw it in real time, it blew your mind away.
The more times one has subsequently seen it, the more one has to remind oneself to start breathing again. Forget about the 89. Forget about the Pretorius run-out. Forget about the two wickets in two balls that would put an end to South African misery. That catch alone was worth the price of admission, that one slice of balletic athleticism whose origin lay in horrible misjudgment enough to trigger the adrenaline rush the World Cup so craved on day one.
“It was a fluke. To be honest I was in the wrong position - if I was in the right position it would have been regulation," Stokes was to say later, as he still soaked in the prolonged adulation of the crowd behind him that went nuts. “That feeling for about five seconds when I was facing the crowd and everyone was cheering, it was phenomenal."
That catch summed up Stokes like nothing else can – errors in judgement, followed by the ability to adapt. The ridiculous, then the sublime. The worldly, and the ethereal. Cricket’s in a better place when outrageously gifted athletes – and showmen – like Stokes are doing their thing. Their frailties expose a poignant human streak, their incandescence transports them to the rarified air of genius. Ice and fire. Rejoice, for Ben Stokes is here.
(Kaushik is a veteran cricket writer who has reported on over 100 Tests. He co-authored VVS Laxman's autobiography '281 and Beyond')
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