Sport loves a redemption story, and in the case of Ben Stokes you’re spoilt for choice.
Would World Cup success make up for Bristol ’17? What about the Ashes he subsequently missed, that 4-0 hammering to many of these same Australians that will line-up before England in Thursday’s semi-final? Could a successful Lord’s final make up for *that* last over in Kolkata back in 2016? Or even 2015, where a rotten run of form meant he was left at home for that particular World Cup debacle.
Whatever thread we might pull on, and whatever wrong Stokes may draw on to right, one thing is for certain. England’s premier allrounder regards this semi-final as the biggest game of his career to date.
“It’s a massive occasion for us as players and as a nation,” says Stokes, without hesitation. “The support has been brilliant. I had a few days off and got out of the bubble. But when you come back to the team you get those butterflies again.”
The events of Bristol are, in his mind, dealt with. So, too, his Ashes no-show, which was very much out of his hands. Even the last World Cup made sense: “I wasn’t scoring runs or taking wickets”. And the notion he has something to pay back to his teammates for how the last two years, such as dealing with the media circus around his absence, last summer’s trial and so on, is refuted out right. Because, for Stokes, the only person he has to prove something to is himself.
“I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to anyone except myself. It opened my eyes up to a lot of things, two years ago, but I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. It’s just showing I can deliver on the biggest stage. Winning is the most important thing and if you can help the team out with an individual performance, that’s all that counts. People can say good things, bad things … it just won’t bother me.”
As part of this process, it seems Stokes has found a new level to his work on the field. Though he is the only member of the top six without a hundred to his name this World Cup, there have been four half-centuries in his 381 runs (at an average of 54.42) and his seven wickets are second to his exceptional economy rate of 4.65. No England bowler is as frugal and that emergence as a valuable white-ball bowler brings him the most joy.
“The thing I have been most happy with has been my bowling. It’s always nice to get runs but the most pleasing thing has been my bowling. I had a chat with Morgs and a few others in the team to get my head around my role.
“Being the fourth or fifth seamer, I sometimes put too much pressure on myself to influence the game. So I spoke to them about not trying to take wickets every ball – it was a clear plan to go at five or six an over and I might get a wicket doing that – that’s helped offer the team more. In the last couple of years it’s probably where I have let the team down.”
As for his batting, it is simply a matter of confidence through a better defined role. Two scores of 89 – one in victory against South Africa, the other in defeat to Australia – were standouts in their respective innings, while a 79 against India helped secure one of the final two much-needed victories. “I either rebuild or have to get on with the game. It is literally that. So being exposed to those situations (over the past four years) has helped.”
Of course, there is a wrong to right in avenging the Lord’s defeat by 64 runs about a fortnight ago. As Stokes says, “playing against Australia is a big occasion – in any sport”.
“Losing to them at Lord’s was massively disappointing, so I think there will be a bit of redemption for that, knowing we have the chance to beat them and get to the final.”
If Stokes has garnered one thing from the last few years amongst his travails, it is an appreciation of what is around him. Specifically, being part of a white ball set-up that has rewritten the script on what it is to play 50-over cricket and be an English ODI player. Even if defeat is forthcoming on Thursday, the 28-year old can step back and recognise what has been achieved and who it has been achieved with.
“When our careers end we’ll be able to look back and say we have played with the world’s best, got to number one but more importantly, played with a good bunch of people. I’m not sure many other teams would be able to say that, but I believe this team is the best at what they do – and we’re trying to build a path for many years to come. This is what England stand for and how we want to play.”