Dubai: Everybody hurts.
But nobody hurts like Benjamin Stokes.
That’s what the cricket fraternity felt yesterday as the English all-rounder produced an impossible innings to salvage his team’s fortunes both in the match and the Ashes series.
It was proof enough that Stokes has Bothamed (oops! I meant blossomed) into the ultimate savior for the English cricket team.
The headline today could easily have read “Horror at Headingley”.
But Ben Stokes’s series-saving and match-winning 135 runs against Australia have now comprehensively demolished the memories of two other epics played on the same ground – Graham Gooch’s 154 against West Indies in 1991 and Ian Botham’s legendary 149 at the Ashes series of 1981.
Botham took six wickets in the first innings of the third Ashes Test that year and scored a 50. In the second innings, he smashed a match-winning unbeaten 149 to rescue the match and the series for England.
Every English fan (and those of cricket in general too!) must have recalled those innings of valour seeing Stokes in action on Sunday.
And Stokes has travelled barely three summers from one of his most disastrous moments in world cricket.
It was a sweltering April night in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata in 2016 when England captain Eoin Morgan handed Stokes the ball at the World Twenty20 final against West Indies.
The West Indians needed 19 runs to win. The England team was a tad relaxed – it looked an impossible target.
But April, as T.S. Eliot says in Wasteland, is the cruelest month.
One Carlos Brathwaite smashed four sixes off the first four balls that Stokes bowled.
A shattered Stokes was left crouching on the ground. The pain was evident on his face.
Captain Morgan said that night: “Cricket can be a cruel game… He is going to be devastated. But we share everything we do, we stick together as a side. We share pain, we share the success. I hope in the future we have a lot more success.”
Others cricket experts were less optimistic and charitable in their caustic comments.
From the ashes of that defeat to the stunning hero of England’s Super Over World Cup triumph earlier this summer and now the centre-piece of saving his team from certain loss in the Ashes, here are some of the comments floating around now.
“You cannot do that Ben Stokes,” said former England captain Nasser Hussain – until the other day a convinced Anglo-sceptic when it came to cricket.
The bloke has the heart of a lion, said Stuart Broad.
“I’m not sure I’ve seen anything better than that on a Test ground,” Australian great Ricky Ponting said.
Who is Ben Stokes?
It’s only appropriate that the English batsman who hit the match-winnings six against New Zealand in the World Cup final earlier this year was also born in that country.
Born in Christchurch in 1991 with Maori ancestry, Stokes moved to Britain at the age of 12 when his father – a former Kiwi rugby league international – got a job as a coach for Workington in northwest England.
His parents eventually moved back to Christchurch along with his brothers in 2013 – and as a schoolboy, Stokes had considered following in his father’s footsteps and pursuing a career in rugby. Instead, England is where that Stokes learnt the game and began playing club cricket for local teams at the age of 15 and becoming an all-rounder who bowls right-arm fast-medium pace and bats left-handed.
He was soon playing for the county side Durham, making his debut as a teenager and later appearing for England at Under-19 level. His aggressive batting as a left-hander, the lively pace of his bowling and the heroics on the field all became a delight for his home team – and Stokes finally made his debut for England in August 2011.
What is his claim to fame?
Since his debut, Stokes has dismantled several cricket records in a journey of eight years.
An attacking middle-order batsman, he holds the record for England’s fastest ever Test double-century, the fastest Test match 250, and the highest score for a Test batsman batting at number six. He also holds the record for the most runs scored by an individual batsman in the morning session of a Test match. Stokes also became the highest-paid overseas player in the history of the Indian Premier League in 2017, fetching a record contract of more than $2 million.
Of course, these are all apart from his class acts at the World Cup final this year and Sunday’s epic innings.
How is his training routine? Does he only survive on fried chicken and chocolates?
Well, despite Stokes’ honest confession of his diet the night before his epic innings on Sunday, he didn’t grow up feasting on pasta, fried chicken and bars of chocolate.
It was Stokes’ father Ged who proved pivotal to his son’s athletic development – instilling in him the discipline and attitude of an elite sportsman from a tender age.
In March this year, ahead of the ICC World Cup, Stokes was filmed in a vast Sunderland ship yard, filming a new video called Tactical Training as part of a series showcasing the world of elite athletes. If anything, that’s a world where the best athletes submit their body and soul to an excruciating daily grind of training – in their quest for sporting excellence. The session had Stokes batting, bowling and fielding at full tilt – enduring a high-intensity training designed to enhance his explosive cricketing prowess even more.
With every passing year, Stokes has become only more determined to make that training more intense and become an even fitter athlete than he already is.
So much so that his one-day captain Morgan had to tell him to train less hard!
What were the key challenges Stokes had to overcome?
Sober, mature and somber – those are of some of the words that instantly hit you if you watched Sunday’s innings – or the World Cup final for that matter.
But that’s a far cry from the Ben Stokes of 2014, 2015 – or even 2017!
In 2014, Stokes missed the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh after reacting to a dismissal in Barbados by punching a dressing room locker and sustaining a broken wrist.
In 2015, an out-of-form Stokes was dropped from England’s squad for the World Cup.
In 2017, Stokes got involved in a fight outside a Bristol nightclub that led to his arrest.
Although eventually cleared of a criminal charge, Stokes was immediately stripped of England vice-captaincy and not considered for the 2017/18 Ashes tour. England meekly surrendered that series by 4-0 series to Australia, and the subsequent court case nearly cost Stokes his England career.
Despite his training regimen and his background, breach of discipline and the occasional mea culpa is something that has haunted and hurt Stokes for enduring periods of time.
The enduring pain of it, the constant barrage of criticism hurled at him, his cricket epitaph being written well ahead of time.
His best remedy? The defiance and belligerence that has come to define Ben Stokes.
Stokes is not a cricketer who likes to look back in regret. He’d rather transmute his pain into an innings generations won’t forget.
A maiden Test century in Perth.
A remarkable 258 off 198 balls against South Africa in Cape Town in 2016.
And the memorable fight-backs of 2019 for England – the World Cup final and the Test innings yesterday.
How did Stokes react to his memories of 2016 and beyond?
Asked after his masterclass on Sunday if his life had been different a year ago, Stokes answered: “That was a year ago. A long time ago.”
“…Everybody cries/ And everybody hurts sometimes,” sang REM a long time ago.
But nobody hurts like Benjamin Stokes.
Not in cricket.