The Ben Stokes image that would remain burnt in the mind for ever would be him standing crouched at the non-striker’s end, head buried in his knees, unable to see if his partner Jack Leach would survive. It was the most humane reaction — it was something that we would probably do. Eyes shut, prayer on lips, hope against hope — Ian Botham wouldn’t have done it; he didn’t in 1981, the summer of his life. Viv Richards didn’t do it when he chased an improbable win with Michael Holding at Oval once. Even VVS Laxman, the man who charmingly abused Pragyan Ojha once in a close chase, didn’t do it. All lost-cause heroes but they had a presence about them that made them act in a crisis as if there was no crisis. As if they had it all in control. Not Stokes. He doesn’t bother with such appearances. How many times as the ball threatened to dip to waiting palms near the boundary, we saw Stokes crouching into that oh-no-please-fly-over position. Curled in a foetus, as it were. And those reactions is what makes on marvel at what he does in the moment when he has the bat in hand.
How does a man who so evidently feels the nerves in the moment, who almost handles it like the rest of us, morphs into a nerveless beast a moment before or a moment later when he is about to hit a ball? How does he turn into an icy-cool, glint-eyed warrior? How the hell does he switch off and on in the same moment?
That reverse sweep for example with two runs to go. The rationale was understandable: it was with the turn but hey, who plays a reverse sweep at that juncture? The odds of it bouncing from the rough and popping off a top edge (hello! Ashes is on line, you legend!) were so high but somehow Stokes erases self-doubts in those moments. And just trusts his instincts.
For a man who doesn’t hide his nerves in the immediate aftermath of a shot or doesn’t know to handle the idleness and helplessness when stranded at the non-striker’s end, his ability to stub out the self-doubts is insane. How does he decide to jump, turn, switch the grip on the bat, and wallop a gobsmacking switch-hit six off the rough, against a bowler as good as Nathon Lyon and with men at boundary waiting for the ball to drop into their palms? Where does that urge come from?
Or consider his last six when 8 runs were needed. On air, Ricky Ponting knew that Stokes would go for it if Lyon gives it a hint of air. Two flattish trajectory balls arrive, he pushed them away. We know he is waiting for that one but Lyon isn’t an idiot. He gives some air but it isn’t your typical well-flighted full delivery.
It’s what the cricketers in Mumbai maidaans call ‘Pede me zeher’ (Poison in a dessert). It’s slower, flighty but it dips and turns. It’s a bait, really, usually unwise to fall for it. But you knew that Ponting was right and that Stokes would go for it but the anticipation of the familiar doesn’t normalise the event when it eventuates.
When he decided to let his hands go through as if he was a boy learning to cycle and has just taken off his hands off the handle, and shouting in nervous joy ‘look Pa, no hands’. The first thought was oh he is going to fall, but it had just about wings to pip over Marcus Harris at long-off. The bicycle boy is happy, and we the watchers in some ways get more emotionally exhausted. Such is the unadulterated amateur joy that Stokes’ batting options infuse in us. You can’t but shrug your head in amazement and laugh loud at what he has done.
Luck? A paranormal urge in him that tells him to go for such high-risk options? A kind of calculated bravado that us mortals won’t understand? Maybe.
He doesn’t belong to the prototypes of great finishers like MS Dhoni and Michael Bevan (in limited-overs) or the Fab Three mentioned at the start of this piece. A Dhoni and Bevan picked their spots in the fields; so, does Stokes but somehow incredibly he takes out the fielders out of his mental picture. It’s as if he is saying, ‘to hell with trying to find a gap when so many boundary-riders are roaming, I am going to take the shortest route possible, the most ideal shot for that ball, will play as if there are no fielders out there’. Usually when others take that approach, it would seem a crazy little manoeuvre that’s never going to work long. But time and again Stokes has done it in his career now.
How can one ignore his past (recent and further down the road)? What’s appreciation without context. We know his temperamental past off the field but we also know his background. Once, his rugby father injured his finger, broke it in fact, but he was so desperate to play the next game that he just had it amputated. No words would suffice as a reaction but a red crimson exclamation mark would be apt. Has something of that percolated through the genes? His mother, a cricketer, once played a game in her late pregnancy. Did that sense of bravado, that knows the risks but nevertheless plunges through them, come from her?
A day after the world cup final, Stokes was walking dazed, almost sheepishly at the Oval, where 5000—3000 of them kids – had turned for world cup triumph celebrations. Again, that lack of swagger was apparent. A Botham or Richards would have lapped it all up. Stokes almost seemed embarrassed by it all. He better get used to it for if he continues to conjure such bewilderingly thrilling jail-breaks, he will end up as the greatest crowd puller of our times. In the years to come, it would be something to say that we witnessed two of the greatest performances in the history of the game across two formats within a span of 45 days from the same player.