Anyone who saw Ben Stokes defy a rampant Australia on a lightning surface at Perth last year knew they were witnessing a rare breed.
All around him colleagues fell, brutally vanquished or limply submitting, but Stokes stood unmoved, immoveable.
He made 120, as measured as it was resilient. It was England’s only century of a forlorn series; it was his second Test match. In his fourth in Sydney a fortnight later, Stokes took five wickets in an innings for the first time, as golden-armed as he was fast. Here we knew, just knew, was an all-rounder for the ages.
Since then, virtual silence, albeit silence which started with a hell of a clatter. Stokes, the new hero, red of hair, volcanic of temper, punched a dressing-room locker after being dismissed for nought in a one-day international in Barbados early in March.
Stokes cared almost too much. He broke a hand, he missed the World Twenty20 and the start of the English season, the selectors kept him waiting and when he was recalled he could not recapture the glories of Australia.
The shadow of what happened at the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown stalked him throughout the summer. “That incident there was totally from wanting to do so well,” Stokes said at England’s pre-tour training camp in Loughborough yesterday. “I now know in myself not to punch lockers. It is just a matter of knowing how to deal with failure, I guess, and make sure any emotion or anger is directed in the right way.”
It was clear from the start in Australia that Stokes was not about to be cowed by anything the opposition, Mitchell Johnson and all, were about to hurl at him. He never took a backward step; it would never have occurred to him.
But that day in Barbados showed that a competitive spirit can have its disadvantages. “I didn’t think of doing it, it just happened, out of totally not producing what I could or wanted to for the team,” he said.
“I never want to lose that, it’s just a matter of doing it in a different way. It wasn’t like I had lost my mind and become a psycho. Nothing changed. Obviously it got brought up. I just said I can’t be doing that. I’m not a psycho.”
Stokes, still but 23, is an engaging, open chap. Richly, naturally talented, he is a bit of a lad. Two winters ago he was sent home from an England Lions tour of Australia for failing to obey team orders on social engagements. It was not that he was under curfew exactly, but having been warned once he went out on the toot again.
The presence of a young family has probably curbed his gallop. He and his partner Clare have a young son and there is another baby on the way in February. The due date falls during the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, for which he should be selected if he can begin to reclaim his form and aura – starting on the tour to Sri Lanka, where England will play seven one-day internationals beginning later this month.
“The one thing from having a child is they’re going to be exactly the same no matter what sort of day you’ve had, whether it’s been good or bad,” he said. “They bring you completely down to earth and take you away from all the emotions you can have from playing a sport. You tend to forget about everything that has happened when you’re walking through the door, so I guess it has changed me.”
With Stokes, however, the anger of the moment does not affect his pragmatic view about the vagaries of form. As professional sportsmen do, he can compartmentalise it. He was not overly concerned about his hat-trick of Test ducks, for instance, because he was not in long enough to show that he was out of form.
Towards the end of the summer there were abundant signs of a return in full. His form for Durham was often resplendent and his 164 from 113 balls in the 50-over Royal London Cup semi-final was a highlight of the summer.
He needed that, just as a reminder. Back in January, Stokes’ apparent status as England’s pre-eminent all-rounder for the decade ahead seemed unopposed. But the Barbados punch and the subsequent quest for genuine form have allowed the estimable Chris Woakes to stake a claim. It will be fascinating to see them vie for a place; fascinating, too, to see if they can both be accommodated.
In so many ways Stokes puts you in mind of those other alluring maverick all-rounders who illuminated England sides: Tony Greig, Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff. He might, it was suggested, have a word with Flintoff about what it all entails. “I spoke to him in Dubai but we were both pissed so I don’t think there was too much cricket talked.” Gosh, this could be fun.
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