When the hammer went down on Ben Stokes at the Indian Premier League player auction for the 2017 season earlier this year, Rising Pune Supergiant coach Stephen Fleming’s expression after hearing his team’s winning bid of Rs 14.5 crore was one for the memes. The soft-spoken New Zealander almost looked embarrassed at the price tag as he put forward his hand to congratulate the franchise owners.
Stokes was the most expensive overseas purchase in IPL history, a statistic that earned him plenty of headlines and media focus ahead of the season. He has all the ingredients of a big-money purchase – he is an all-rounder, which means he can affect the game with both bat and ball, he is a great fielder, and, more importantly, he is extremely dedicated – one of the hardest-working cricketers in the world and someone who is willing to give it all for his team the entire time he is on the field.
But as is the case with all big-money purchases in whichever sport, whether you’re Paul Pogba or Ben Stokes, the scrutiny that comes with it can get to you. You can never get the price tag off you, especially if you’re not doing well. You’re always on display, whether it’s on the cricket field or in a studio shooting an ad for a sponsor. You’re always expected to perform – in every game, and in the case of an all-rounder, with both bat and ball.
Stokes had a decent start to the season, scoring a half-century in his second game, albeit in a losing cause. However, he was brought crashing down the very next match, as he went wicketless and conceded 41 runs with the ball, and could manage only two with the bat. This was followed by a quick 25 off 18 and 0/18. RPS lost both these matches as well. The team was lying at the bottom of the table after four matches and Stokes would have been feeling the pressure.
The 25-year-old responded with a match-winning performance in the next game, against Royal Challengers Bangalore, taking 3/18 with the ball, including the wickets of Virat Kohli and Shane Watson, but flopping with the bat. It was still enough to win him the man-of-the-match award as Pune successfully defended 161 against Royal Challengers Bangalore. This was followed by another flop show in both departments (0/19 with the ball and 10 with the bat), even as Pune won the match against Sunrisers Hyderabad.
Then came Monday. Pune versus Mumbai. The Maharashtra derby. Stokes put on a quick 17 off 12 and was looking good with the bat, before giving his wicket to a Mitchell Johnson delivery that did not really deserve it. Pune manage to put up only 160 on the board, and even though the pitch was on the slower side, it would take a spirited bowling performance to defend it.
Stokes was given the cherry in the fifth over and struck with his second ball, a slower one that his compatriot Jos Buttler could only send down long-on’s throat. Stokes got a second wicket without giving away a single run, in his next over, with another slower one. He went on to concede only 15 runs in three overs before being asked to bowl the penultimate over of the innings.
Mumbai needed 24 from 12 balls with five wickets in hand – very much doable. His first two balls were quite poor, full and straying down leg – one going for a wide. However, he responded with five brilliant deliveries to follow it up, all but one of them either yorkers – or almost yorker-length and crashing into the stumps. He would give only seven runs away in that over, leaving Mumbai with an improbable 17 to get from the last six balls.
Stokes was done with the ball – 2/21 in his four overs – but he wasn’t done for the match. In the last over of the match, he would take a superb diving catch running in from long-off to dismiss the dangerous Hardik Pandya and all but seal the game. Pune would go on to win by three runs, with Stokes getting his second man-of-the-match award of the season.
Apart from his one half-century, Stokes has failed with the bat so far – 21(14), 2(5), 25(18), 2(3), 10(9) and 17(12). He’s got some starts, but not managed to stay on. However, his two match-winning performances with the ball have been pretty impressive. “Yeah, at least that side’s going pretty well,” Stokes said of his bowling, after Monday’s game. “I’ve been pretty disappointing with the batting so far... The best thing about being an all-rounder is that you’re in the game with both sides – batting and bowling. If one doesn’t go too well, you have the chance to come back and affect the game with the other.”
Stokes is an intelligent bowler. He has used the conditions in India very well to his advantage. RPS’s last three games – in Bengaluru, Pune and Mumbai – have all been on pitches on the slower side, and Stokes has used his slower off-cutter quite wisely. “[The slower balls] are coming out nicely,” he said. “The wickets that we played on over the last two or three games obviously helped that. The pitches have been conducive to using slower-paced deliveries.”
In the game against RCB, Stokes had spoken of how he had bowled to his plan against Watson even after the Australian had hit him for a boundary earlier in the over. “We had a plan in terms of what we wanted to bowl and we found out that the balls that were bowled into the wicket, pace off, were the hardest ones to hit,” Stokes had told iplt20.com. “We managed him after that four over cover and I stuck to what we knew is going to work best for us and it paid off in the end.”
Stokes bowled to the plan again on Monday, first with the slower ones and then with the yorkers in the all-important 19th over. He did not give the Mumbai batsmen any room to play their shots. “That over was very crucial for them,” said Mumbai Indians’ Harbhajan Singh after the match. “We didn’t get any boundaries in that over and it changed the scenario of the game.”
Three weeks into the season, Stokes has done quite well for himself. He’s not set the stage alight, but has been crucial in at least two of his team’s victories, where Pune have defended 160-odd. His price tag means that nothing less than 500 runs and 30 wickets for the season will be satisfactory to the media, but his franchise owners would be wise not to read too much into that. Slowly, but surely, the return on their investment is coming through.