The Ashes 2019: The rise, fall and rise again of Ben Stokes

From the despair of Kolkata to the disrepute of Bristol to the destiny of Lord’s, on the eve of its biggest trial, once more a nation looks to Stokes for salvation

Jonathan Liew
Chief Sports Writer
Wednesday 31 July 2019 08:02
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The Ashes in Numbers

1) Kolkata

There’s an old story about a man who falls down a hole and can’t get out. A doctor walks by, and the man shouts up at him. The doctor writes out a prescription, throws it down the hole, moves on. A priest comes along, and the man shouts up at him. The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down the hole, moves on. Then a friend walks by. The man shouts up at him, and the friend jumps down into the hole.

“Are you nuts?” the man cries. “Now we’re both in the hole!”

“Yeah, but I’ve been down here before,” the friend says. “And I know the way out.”

It was the Super Over of the World Cup final, and Jofra Archer was in the hole. As he prepared to bowl the six (or, as it turned out, seven) most important deliveries of his life, the truth and the consequences of the moment swimming through his mind like a torrent, a familiar face walked over. Ben Stokes had been in the hole before. And he knew the way out.

“Everyone believes in you,” Stokes told him, before giving Archer the piece of advice that would stick with him most. “Win or lose, today doesn’t define you.”

Stokes helped Archer at Lord's

It’s a lesson that Stokes himself discovered the hard way. Three years earlier, in the World Twenty20 final in Kolkata, it was his job to bowl the final over of the match, with 19 runs required to win. In what we now have to describe as the second most stunning climax to a global final, Carlos Brathwaite of the West Indies smashed him for four consecutive sixes to win the game. Slumped on the turf, head bowed, Stokes’s world had come crashing down around him in an instant.

“I’ve just f---ed this up, completely,” he remembers thinking. “I’ve lost us the World Cup.”

It was only a couple of hours later, as he fished his runner-up medal out from under his seat in the dressing room and packed his bags, that his mood began to turn. The warm words of his teammates had helped, but then he switched on his phone as he took his seat on the bus, bracing himself for a torrent of abuse online. Instead, he was greeted with thousands of well-wishing messages from England fans and others. There was a reassuring text from Shane Warne, who Stokes barely knew. In defeat, Stokes felt more love than he had ever felt in victory.

By the time the bus arrived back at the Taj Bengal hotel, the songs and the drinks were already flowing. Coach Trevor Bayliss and captain Eoin Morgan insisted that this was a time not to mourn what they had lost, but to celebrate what they had achieved. The party carried on until nine the next morning. As the morning papers back in England carried pictures of Stokes’s heartache, the man himself was largely over it.

Kolkata remains the low point of Stokes' time in an England shirt 

In the space of just a few hours, Stokes had received perhaps the most important lesson in professional sport, one that he would later bestow to Archer on the Lord’s outfield. Sport is too important a gift to be defined by winning or losing. Success doesn’t complete you, and so nor should failure destroy you.

“Stokes doesn’t learn,” his old adversary Marlon Samuels crowed in the aftermath of that Kolkata defeat.

But Samuels was wrong.

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2) Hobart

It was February 2013, and Andy Flower was sending Stokes home from the England Lions tour of Australia. For some time, their mercurial all-rounder had struggled to make good on his early promise. Now, after a number of incidents of ill-discipline, he and his team-mate Matt Coles had been caught breaking a team curfew and going on a night out.

“You don’t want to play for England,” Flower told him coldly. “You just want to piss it up the wall with your mates and have a good time.”

But Flower was only half-right. The problem with Stokes was that he wanted to do both. He wanted to do it all.

England has produced four great all-rounders in its history. The first was WG Grace, one of the most famous men in Victorian Britain. The second, a century later, was Ian Botham. Around the turn of the century came the third, in Andrew Flintoff. Now, after his feats of the last few weeks, it finally feels appropriate to anoint Stokes as the fourth.

Stokes has grown into a fine all-rounder

What links all four - and elevates them above other fine players like Wilfred Rhodes, George Hirst or Tony Greig - is that they were not just brilliant batsmen, brilliant bowlers and natural athletes. They had a heft and a personality, an animal magnetism that drew others towards them, that could change the gravity of a game through sheer force of will. And they did so on the biggest stages: Grace with millions following his every deed, Botham and Flintoff in generation-defining Ashes series, and now Stokes in England’s World Cup summer.

But there was also an element of excess to all four. In the case of Grace, it manifested itself in a certain gluttony: first for money, then for prestige, then in his later years for food and drink. Botham’s numerous off-field shenanigans in the 1980s made him a fixture of the front pages as well as the back. Flintoff’s gargantuan feats on the field were matched by a gargantuan appetite off it. And with Stokes, too, there has been an element of the giant untamed: a man who grew up being able to do it all, and who thus never quite learned when to rein it in.

From an early age, Stokes discovered he could make people happy simply by playing cricket to the best of his ability. There’s a story about his first half-century for his local club side in Cockermouth, Cumbria. Stokes is batting in a crucial league game against their title rivals. They’re nine wickets down and the target is well out of reach, so Stokes - aged 15 - is essentially playing for a draw. And so, with the field spread, and the No11 at the other end, he walks down the pitch and clouts the bowler over long-on for six.

That was Stokes right from the start: hit the hardest, bowl the fastest, run the most in the field, and sink the most in the bar afterwards. Nobody can please everyone, but somehow Stokes found he could get closer than most. Even his unceremonious exit from the Lions tour in 2013 had a silver lining: within eight months, he was back in Australia with the England senior side, scoring a century in his second Test and throwing Flower’s words back in his face.

And that, it seemed, would be the story of Ben Stokes: a cartoonish cricketer with a cartoonish talent. What other player could take one of the greatest catches of all time, win an Ashes series with a six-wicket haul, and then score 258 in a Test in Cape Town a few months later?

But in the distance, the clouds were already gathering.

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3) Bristol

Stokes made his Test debut for England at Adelaide in 2013, with England already 1-0 down in the series. In a fiery opening spell, he found the edge of Brad Haddin’s bat for what he thought was his first Test wicket, only to look around and see the umpire signal a no-ball. As a distraught Stokes turned back to his mark, he heard the gloating voice of Haddin behind him.

“That’s your first and last Test wicket,” Haddin chirped.

It was at this point that James Anderson stepped in. “Hadds, I wouldn’t get yourself much further in with this one,” he said. “Doesn’t quite know the difference between on and off the pitch, know what I mean?”

“Nutter,” agreed Matt Prior.

It worked, at least in the short term: Haddin didn’t give Stokes any trouble after that. But the wider significance of that anecdote is the way it illustrates how, right from the start, England were prepared to turn Stokes’s famously short fuse to their advantage. The passion and the excess, the fire and the fury, were being stoked and commodified in order to win games of cricket. What nobody quite realised at the time was that the indulgence of Stokes might have unintended consequences further down the line.

Stokes was found not guilty of affray

Under the directorship of Andrew Strauss between 2015 and 2017, England’s team culture subtly changed. Under Strauss’s captaincy just a few years earlier, the team was the be-all and end-all. Individuals, however gifted, were expected to submit their own urges to those of the team. But under Morgan, Bayliss and later Joe Root, the emphasis shifted. The team ethos was still sacrosanct, but it was decided that the best way to maintain it was to encourage players to express themselves, without consequences or fear of failure.

Whether it was allowing England players to play in the Indian Premier League, the no-holds-barred mindset that rejuvenated their white-ball batting or a relaxed attitude to socialising, the new mantra of the dressing room was: go for it. Back yourself. A new television deal was out for tender, a new city franchise competition was being planned, and so Stokes became the perfect emblem of English cricket’s unfettered new dawn: bold, volatile, just a little bit dangerous. On the cover of his autobiography - “Firestarter - Me, Cricket and the Heat of the Moment” - Stokes poses moodily with a bat over his shoulder, flames licking at the handle.

And so in many ways, the altercation between Stokes and Ryan Hale and Ryan Ali in Bristol at 2.30am on 25 September 2017 was the logical culmination of everything that brought Stokes to that point. A big night out in the middle of a series, by the end of which he had sunk, by his recollection, “three to four beers, six vodka and lemonades and a few Jagerbombs”. A team culture that enabled instinct, and encouraged acts of have-a-go heroism. And a personal brand founded on excess, unpredictability and willingness to go the extra mile.

“Fair play,” Kai Barry remembers thinking later that night, after discovering that the man who had come to the aid of him and his partner after they had been subject to homophohic bullying was not some random stranger, but an England international cricketer. “He’s obviously put his career at risk for someone that he never knew.”

Knowing what we know now, it would be surprising if Stokes had ever considered an alternative. Virtually everything he had achieved and experienced to that point had taught him that doing nothing was not an option. Going to get help was not an option. Beating a hasty retreat was not an option. Keeping a low profile two days before a one-day international was not an option. For he was Ben Stokes. And Ben Stokes can do it all.

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4) Lord’s

It took Ben Stokes to the very brink of losing everything - an Ashes tour, his career, his freedom - to discover that he couldn’t do it all. “I was that close to my career ending and being thrown away, just like that,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “That might be what changed the way I do things. It sounds silly. But could Bristol have been the best thing that could have happened to me?”

It wasn’t until the 50th over of England’s chase in the World Cup final that we found out for certain. If Bristol in 2017 was the culmination of everything that Stokes had learned in his first life, then Lord’s in 2019 was the culmination of everything he had learned in his second. The change wasn’t drastic - talk to those who know him, and they’ll tell you that in most respects Stokes is the same bolshy, ebullient, kind-hearted, madly loyal best mate he always was. But all the same, it was enough.

The first twist came when, with England needing nine off three balls, Stokes turned and dived for a second run, only for the ball to ricochet off his bat and run away for four overthrows. As England supporters leapt and cheered their dumb luck, Stokes looked almost aghast at the idea of winning a World Cup through a lucky deflection. Unsure of the rules, he walked over to umpires Marais Erasmus and Kumar Dharmasena and asked them: “Can you take that four off? We don’t want it.”

Stokes was instrumental as England won the World Cup

The next telling moment came off the final ball of the innings, with two runs required for victory. Here, in many ways, was the epilogue to the story he had begun at Cockermouth 13 years earlier. Then, in blithe disregard of the match situation, he had hit a six simply because he felt like it. Now, Trent Boult bowled him a juicy full toss on leg stump, just begging to be swung into the stands.

“Just don’t hit it in the air and get caught,” he later remembered telling himself. “Don’t try to be a hero and do it with a six.”

In the biggest match of his life, on the biggest stage he would ever know, at the climactic, heroic moment, Stokes knocked a full-toss down the ground for a single.

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5) Edgbaston

It was during that World Twenty20 in India in 2016 - the one that would end with Stokes crumpled on the Kolkata turf - that assistant coach Paul Farbrace took him to one side and urged him to take on more of a leadership role within the team. “People will go with you,” he told Stokes.

Now, on the verge of his third Ashes series, Stokes again finds himself at the heart of England’s leadership group: restored to the vice-captaincy, once more the team’s most indispensable player. “If there was one guy who could come back from the sort of adversity [he has been through], he is that one guy,” Bayliss says. “He has a zest for life. People gravitate to him.”

Stokes has certainly become a more mature player, a more nuanced player, a more trustworthy player, in the last 18 months. What remains in some doubt is whether he’s become a better player. Before Bristol, Stokes averaged 36 with the bat at a strike rate of 64 in Tests. Since Bristol, those numbers have dropped to 29 and 46. But his bowling output has improved markedly: his average is down from 34 to 26, and at a better economy rate. In one-day internationals, his strike rate has dropped from 99 to 87, but his average has risen from 35 to 54. Most tellingly of all, perhaps, is the following statistic: Stokes hasn’t hit a century in any form of cricket since his brush with the law in September 2017.

Stokes is likely to be crucial in this Ashes series 

But when you’ve won a World Cup final virtually single-handedly, does any of that really matter? Perhaps not. Perhaps the real lesson of the last few weeks is that sometimes the worth of a player can’t simply be measured in runs and wickets. The statisticians will tell you Shaun Pollock was a far superior better Test all-rounder to Ian Botham. Those who lived through the peak eras of both will tell you differently.

England go into the Ashes series overtired, undercooked and in their worst run of batting form in most of our lifetimes. For the first time in a decade, Australia feel like favourites. It seems inconceivable that a single player, however, inspired, could solve all their problems at once, not least a batsman who hasn’t dominated a Test attack for two years and is yet to define an Ashes series in the same way his illustrious predecessors did.

And yet, the trajectory of Stokes’s career teaches us that this is a player unconstrained by expectations. From the despair of Kolkata to the disrepute of Bristol to the destiny of Lord’s, older, wiser, risen and fallen and risen again: on the eve of its biggest trial, once more a nation looks to Stokes for salvation.

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