Updated: November 11, 2016 7:42:38 am
“You don’t want to play for England. You just want to piss it up the wall with your mates, and have a good time.”
– Andy Flower, ex England coach, to Ben Stokes.
On a dry hot July day in London in 2013, Ben Stokes sidled into the seats in the stands at Lord’s, and sat next to the psychologist Mark Bawden. He had struggled through the season, was feeling down with his performance, so much so that his captain at Durham, Paul Collingwood, had texted him, “Are you ok?” He wasn’t. But he didn’t want to share his heartache with his teammates as he didn’t want to short-change his boisterous tattoo-star image. But he realised he had to open up to someone, and he decided Bawden was the go-to man.
Bawden, who has worked with a few English teams, heard him out before giving his verdict that Stokes was suffering from ‘Bottle Bottle Bang’ syndrome’. In normal lingo, it meant Stokes was bottling up his frustrations, and it keeps festering inside until it explodes. He had to lighten up else the wretched rut would continue. It had been a poor summer mentally and the shot-making ability was on the wane. And the year had started terribly when in January, he and Matt Coles were asked to leave a England Lions tour of Australia after being caught drinking too late into the night. Andy Flower was one of the personnel involved in taking the tough decision, and he even had a few tough things to say to the youngster. Bottle, bottle, bang.
Not that he needed just a solitary chat with the psychologist. In March 2014, the frustration of a poor tour in West Indies, saw Stokes punching the locker in the dressing room, breaking his hand, forcing him to miss the World T20. More meet-ups with Bawden took place and he was even given a routine when angry: go to the dressing room and pack up your kit-bag. That packing process apparently has helped Stokes in calming down a few times.
On a dry hot day in Rajkot, Stokes didn’t require Bawden or feel any need to pack up his kit-bag. He went bang, bang, and it was India’s captain who wasn’t bottling his emotions on the field when his men kept dropping catches. It was undoubtedly a lucky day for Stokes — Wriddhiman Saha dropped two catches when he had crossed 60, Saha again couldn’t get anywhere close to an inside-edge off Ashwin, at least couple of shots landed in the no-man’s zone, and once, Ravindra Jadeja was a touch slow in reacting to a half-chance at mid-off.
Who can grudge him his luck, though? For, the last time he was on a cricket field in India, Stokes was left almost in tears. The West Indian Carlos Brathwaite, a batmaker, had smashed the living daylights off him to win the World T20 final in Kolkata. England had almost two hands on the trophy but Stokes had let the grasp slip, and lost them the trophy. On that night, in the team bus, he couldn’t help refreshing the Twitter feed and was pleasantly surprised to receive more support than abuse. And this time around, he didn’t bottle his emotions, and got over the debacle as soon as it was humanly possible. And his return to India has started with great hospitality from the Indian cricketers.
If you look beyond his reprieves, his batting against reverse swing stood out. Not many batsmen shoulder arms so (care)freely as Stokes did to deliveries from Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami that curled past the off-stump. The Indians did give him a sniff as the ball had started to wobble a touch too early in the trajectory. They couldn’t get much late (reverse) swing but both bowlers were getting it to tail in and out. But Stokes seems to be one of those batsmen who thrive on confidence. Often, he would lean forward and raise the bat high and let the balls go around off stump. Despite watching Moeen Ali lose his off stump, trying to do that. Despite the fact that the seamers were hurling them across from the round-the-stumps angle that usually forces batsmen to play at most deliveries coming in with the angle. It would not have been an easy thing to do, but Stokes let a fair number of deliveries curve away from the stumps. You don’t associate Stokes with excellent judgment of off stump but by and large he did show great composure. Shami started to get the ball fuller and curl in, but Stokes managed to get the front foot out of the way to stab them to the on-side.
His adventurous batting against spinners wasn’t a surprise, especially on this slow track without much assistance. Unsurprisingly, he was also in a battle with himself. On a couple of occasions, he couldn’t resist the urge to go for big hits but it kept landing safely. Once, he couldn’t clear long-on but it just about had enough legs on it to force the boundary-patroller M Vijay to step outside the boundary. In the interim, he used his reach to get forward to drive the spinners, and the seamers had to kill any thoughts bouncing him after a short delivery from Shami was spanked imperiously to square-leg boundary.
Bawden, the psychologist who helped Stokes, likes to classify his sporting subjects in two types: Assassins (thinkers) and Warriors (feelers). He puts Alastair Cook in the former, and Stokes of course falls in the ‘warrior’ category. “One thing I try and do is de-myth confidence for people, who often think that confidence is having absolutely no doubt and unbreakable self-belief. In normal life, everybody experiences fear, anxiety and self-doubt,” Bawden once said. “My job is helping people realise that confidence isn’t the absence of fear or doubt, it’s trust in your method.”
That trust in his method has meant Stokes doesn’t get too flustered if he ends up miscuing some of his shots. The clarity that confidence doesn’t mean absence of doubt also helped Stokes effect a great personal turnaround in 2013, a year he finished with a maiden hundred in Australia.
In his book Firestarter, where he mentions the rebuke he got from Flower, Stokes also talks about the scenes at a hotel lobby around Christmas in Melbourne. He was walking with his girlfriend Clare – Stokes became a father at the age of 21, and has a son and a daughter – and the couple chanced upon Flower in a chat with other coaches. He told Clare that, “I really want to tell him, I told you so, I did have it in me”. Clare restrained him, saying Flower must have used it to motivate him and not to disparage, and Stokes knew she, and Flower, were indeed right.
During that tour, while taking a single, he had collided with Mitchell Johnson, and got a verbal spray: “What the hell ya doing, ya little sh**?” As it has turned out, these days Stokes knows exactly what he is doing: scoring runs and taking wickets for England.