On 3 April 2016, Ben Stokes stopped being a death bowler.
He was the man Eoin Morgan turned to with West Indies needing 19 off the final over of the ICC World Twenty20 in Kolkata. Carlos Brathwaite, the number eight, was new to the crease. Everything was in control for England, until Brathwaite hit the first ball of the over for six, and the next three went the distance too.
Stokes turned white with shock after the second six, and was already crestfallen by the time the third had been dispatched. England’s defeat was dramatic but the only person that could really be blamed, harsh though it may seem, was the flame-haired Durham all-rounder who landed all four balls perfectly in Brathwaite’s hitting zone.
On 25 September 2017, Ben Stokes was arrested by the police.
He had had a great year up until then. He justified his huge price tag to emerge as tournament MVP at the 2017 edition of the IPL with some spectacular showings for Rising Pune Supergiant, and also produced some barnstorming all-round efforts for England.
But when he became involved in a nasty fight outside a nightclub in Bristol, breaking his hand in the process, the media spotlight was suddenly far more intense than anything that had celebrated his cricketing achievements. Stokes was charged with affray, and eventually faced a Crown Court trial some 11 months later, by which time he had been pulled out of an Ashes tour and stripped of the vice-captaincy.
Acquitted by a jury, a hugely relieved Stokes was finally able to fully concentrate on cricket once again and the close-knit England dressing-room was only too glad to be able to go into the World Cup with their totemic all-rounder firmly on board.
Contributing the top score of 89 along with two wickets, he was man of the match in the tournament opener against South Africa. For good measure, he also completed a spectacular catch just inside the boundary rope to give the tournament its first viral moment.
Somehow, when Ben Stokes is around, stuff just happens. Maybe it’s an English all-rounder thing: he is very much in the mould of Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff - all three have had an almost supernatural effect on the events around them, their magnetic charisma drawing them towards the big moments. Morgan himself used the term “super-human” to describe Stokes in the wake of the extraordinary Lord’s final.
England’s run to the final was far from straightforward, of course. Most of the batsmen, so good the rest of their time, were affected terribly by stage fright in the failed chases against both Sri Lanka and Australia. Stokes, on the other hand, stood tall, passing 80 each time but sorely lacking the support required to ensure the job was completed.
For a horrible moment or two, it looked like exactly the same thing might happen in the final - Stokes hitting 80-something and England losing again. That would have been a cruel thing to bear indeed.
The wicket was ludicrously green - nothing like a mid-summer English wicket is supposed to look like after a period of dry weather in the middle of summer. (One suspects the ICC have been far more implicit in the preparation of these tracks than has been admitted). The net result was that it was practically impossible to score at six an over against New Zealand’s excellent bowling attack unless your name was Jos Buttler.
And when Buttler was out, after a 110-run stand with Stokes that had finally got England into position for the final push, the situation was beginning to look bleak because Stokes was struggling to time the ball - and if he couldn’t time it, there was no way the lower order could do so.
But Stokes found a way, often playing shots on one knee as his energy levels dwindled. In the 48th over he got Trent Boult away on the leg-side for a crucial boundary, bisecting the gap between deep square leg and deep midwicket with utmost precision.
In the 49th over, with 22 needed off nine balls, he was perilously close to being caught by Boult in the deep, but the fielder stepped on the boundary marker just before he relayed the ball back to Martin Guptill.
There was still so much of Stokes-centred drama to pack into the climax: the big slog-sweep for six in the final over, the incredibly fortunate four overthrows that deflected off his bat - Stokes said he apologised to Kane Williamson “countless times” about that particular incident - and, of course, his rapid re-appearance in the super over.
Stokes hit eight runs off the three balls he faced in the eliminator and then immediately sought out Jofra Archer, the man chosen to bowl the solitary England over. His last act was to encourage Archer to finally get England over the line, and Archer managed manfully to do just that.
“I have Ben to thank. He said that, if we lose, it doesn’t define you as a player,” Archer revealed afterwards. “That went a long way towards keeping me calm.”
After his Kolkata experience, there was no way Stokes was going to bowl that over himself, and he could barely stand up by then in any case. In his deeds and in his words, he had more than played his part in England’s first World Cup success following the many decades of failure.
On 14 July 2019, Ben Stokes was man of the match in the World Cup final.
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