Dubai: Ben Stokes may have joined the Indian Premier League 2020 midway during his team Rajasthan Royals’ campaign, but he will easily go down as one of the top 10 characters who added lusture to the competition being held under such challenging circumstances in the UAE. It may have needed him a few matches to get into the groove and come blazing with that unbeaten century against Mumbai Indians, but his influence went far beyond just on-field exploits.
“Things are a bit difficult right now, but hope this has given a bit of happiness back home. Saying goodbye to my dad, my mum and my brother in Christchurch was tough. It has been a difficult time for us as a family, but we’ve pulled together and supported each other as best we can,” Stokes said in the post-match presentation - an admission which reflected the inner turmoil of one of the biggest matchwinners in world cricket now. It would be, irrespective of how the business-end of the league unfolds, a moment which would resonate with us long after this IPL is over.
The Ian Bothamesque performances which the New Zealand-born star allrounder of England had been dishing out off an on - especially in the ICC World Cup and the Ashes series last year - that there is always a great deal of expectations of him whenever he has a bat or a ball in hand. ‘‘See the pressure of expectations is something that I put upon myself, and that is to give hundred percent. I can’t always expect the results to come consistently but at the end of the game, if I have left everything on the field - I know that I have done my job,’’ Stokes explains his mechanism of dealing with the pressure.
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It’s his fourth year in the IPL after having made his debut with the now defunct franchise Rising Pune Supergiant in 2017, for whom Stokes had a standout season - including an unbeaten 103. Asked which of his two IPL centuries had given him the most satisfaction, Stokes felt that both stood out for different reasons. Speaking to Gulf News in an exclusive interview, he said: ‘‘Both have their positivities towards them. The one I got playing for Pune, it was my first year in such a big competition. I also haven’t played that much of T20 cricket before my first season and hence, it was very rewarding. Against Mumbai the other day, it was of course nice to get the team over the line and keep our expectations alive,’’ he said.
The IPL has, over the past three to four years, acted as a level-playing field for English cricketers - be it the illustrious trio of Stokes himself, Jos Buttler, Jofra Archer or a young professional like Sam Curran - who want to test themselves against the best and reap the rewards on this stage. The scenario was much different about seven to eight years back, when the England & Wales Cricket Board were not yet ready to open it up for their players to be part of the cash-rich league.
Asked if it was his and Buttler’s IPL sppearances which opened up the horizons for other England players, Stokes attributed the credit to Kevin Pietersen. ‘‘Before Jos and me, it goes further back to Kevin Pietersen’s playing days...it was him who paved the way for England players. It was a very sensitive subject that time because of the English contract system and he was very vocal about it.
‘‘If he hadn’t voiced his opinions, then we wouldn’t have seen so many English players here. Even if one is not playing, the training and the sheer experience of spending time with greats of the T20 game for over months makes it a worthwhile exercise,’’ he said.
Stokes is happy that contrary to the popular perception, the quality fast bowlers in the ongoing edition of IPL have been making their presence felt. ‘‘It shows that pace matters. The likes of Rabada, Archer, Nortje, Siraj (of RCB) have shown what pace can do for you by regularly hitting the 140-plus mark. Someone like Archer bowls two of his overs in powerplay for us, gets a wicket and doesn’t go for many runs,’’ he reasoned.
For the Royals fans who may have been a tad surprised that Stokes had been coming in a different role as an opener, the Durham ace revealed that he and their coach Andrew McDonald had been planning about it for while.
‘‘I’d had conversations with ‘Macca’ really long ago now, the IPL usually happens earlier in the year, so we had discussions even before that. I’m really enjoying the new role. It’s something that I’ve sort of always wanted to slowly and gradually get into. In the England team, it’s very tough with the amount of quality of batsmen we’ve got, like Jason Roy, Tom Banton, Jonny Bairstow, Alex Hales and all these guys who’re all opening batsmen, so it’s a very hard place to get into. So yeah, I am really enjoying the opportunity and responsibility I’ve been given here at the Royals,’’ Stokes replied. The question of living and playing in a bio bubble invariably came up during the conversation and Stokes readily admitted that it can get a bit ‘‘monotonous’’ beyond a point. ‘‘I feel it’s a really challenging thing to go through. Especially when it’s so far away from what we’ve been used to for so many years. Being in a bio-secure bubble takes away that freedom that we’re used to but looking at the bigger picture - it’s a responsibility that we have on our shoulders as professional cricketers and athletes to keep the game going on the TV screens.
‘‘You know being away from the family, being in the same place for a long period of time, it can get a bit monotonous after a certain point of time but then - we’d much rather be in a bubble playing cricket and doing what we love than sitting at home not being able to do. We need to put things into perspective, there are millions in the world suffering a lot more than what we are. Thinking about them when we feel that times are getting tough makes it a little bit easier.’’ Finally, a word about the India-England Test series early next year? ‘‘Yeah, we hope everything goes alright and we can have the tour. Obviously, we’ll have to prepare and prepare well for a tour to India,’’ he signed off.