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The genius of Ben Stokes

Throughout his phenomenal career, Ben Stokes has shown that he is more than just a big match player. He exemplifies England's mastery in limited overs cricket

Ben Stokes in action against Pakistan in the T20 World Cup 2022 final.
Ben Stokes in action against Pakistan in the T20 World Cup 2022 final. (Reuters)

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Ben Stokes credited leg-spinner Adil Rashid and left-arm pacer Sam Curran, who took five wickets between them, for England’s 2022 T20 World Cup win on Sunday. The bowlers kept the target to 138 on a dicey Melbourne pitch. But Stokes was being modest.

Pakistan had the best bowling attack in the tournament, and had more than an even chance of winning after taking three wickets in the powerplay, including that of skipper Jos Buttler. Stokes anchored the win under pressure with an unbeaten 52.

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Luck played a part too, or the “rub of the green”, as former England captain Eoin Morgan put it. Pakistan pace spearhead Shaheen Shah Afridi twisting his damaged knee while taking Harry Brook’s catch in the 13th over, when England still had 54 to make, was critical. Stokes took the replacement bowler, off-spinner Ifitkhar Ahmed, for 13 runs in five balls to put England in control. But two of his lofted shots in that over went tantalizingly close to Babar Azam, one falling just short, and the other skimming over his outstretched hands for a six. The number of times Stokes swished, missed, and survived against the young Pakistan speedster, Naseem Shah, defied the law of averages.

But, as the saying goes, luck favours the brave. And there’s no one braver or mentally stronger than Ben Stokes in cricket today. When he took a hiatus from the game in July last year to heal an injured finger and regain his mental well-being, few could have imagined he would come back even stronger.

A documentary about him, released in August, revealed the perfect storm that had laid this extraordinary cricketer low last year. It had begun with a British tabloid newspaper digging up an old family tragedy and running it on the front page in 2019, months after Stokes had anchored England’s 2019 ODI World Cup victory over New Zealand at Lord’s. Then, in 2020, he hated the game for keeping him away from his father in New Zealand who died that year after suffering from brain cancer. The isolation of Covid bubbles aggravated the mental turmoil. And then he fractured his finger the next year in the IPL, and played through the pain after surgery to lead England to an ODI series win in Pakistan.

England players celebrate winning the T20 World Cup 2022.
England players celebrate winning the T20 World Cup 2022. (AP)

Finally, he took a hiatus for a second surgery, not knowing whether he would ever be able to play at the international level again. But, it healed, he was pain-free, and it was this Ben Stokes 3.0 that Pakistan ran into in Sunday’s final.

Last year was the second time Ben Stokes had risen like a Phoenix from the Ashes, as the documentary about him is titled. The last over he bowled for England in the 2016 T20 World Cup final in Kolkata, where Carlos Brathwaite of the West Indies blasted him for four consecutive sixes to snatch the victory from England, was hard to take for the then 25-year-old.

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The following year, he was charged with punching two men outside a nightclub after consuming a substantial amount of alcohol. A jury acquitted him after he maintained that he was protecting two gay men from abuse and acted in self-defence. The 11-month ordeal left mental scars, but he was able to put both the cricketing debacle in Kolkata and the personal damage to his reputation in Bristol behind him to win the World Cup for England in 2019. That was Ben Stokes 2.0.

When you have a character like that in the team, it’s easy to attribute England’s unique distinction of holding two World Cup trophies at the same time to the Ben Stokes phenomenon. But that’s only one part of the story.

The other part began in the 2015 ODI World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, when England got eliminated after a loss to Bangladesh. The team led by Eoin Morgan then made a commitment to overcome fear of failure and downgrade the role of anchors and self-preservation in white ball cricket, except when the game situation dictates it, as in chasing the low target against Pakistan.

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England’s success with the new approach prompted others to try and copy it. But that’s not so easy, because it involves a structural shift: from team selection and captaincy to batting order and bowling style. Punjab Kings tried it in this year’s IPL and came a cropper. India too have been talking about playing fearless cricket, but often bat conservatively at the top of the order.Virat Kohli scored the most runs, 296, in the 2022 T20 World Cup, but he left too much to do in the second half after coming out to bat at No.3. That’s why his strike rate rank is 34.

England’s top three batsmen make sure they make full use of the powerplay, no matter what. They lost three wickets in the process against Pakistan in the first six overs, but the 49 they scored in that period was 10 runs more than Pakistan’s 39 runs for the loss of one wicket in the powerplay. The 10-run margin in a low-scoring game counted for more than the two-wicket margin Pakistan got by playing more conservatively. That made all the difference because it allowed Ben Stokes to play judiciously as the required rate had fallen to a run a ball after the powerplay.

England did lose a rain-affected game to Ireland in the group stage, but did not let that affect their approach. The new skipper, Jos Buttler, is well-versed in this brand of cricket, having helped shape it under Morgan’s captaincy earlier.

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They lost one of their main strikers, Jonny Bairstow, to a freak injury before the tournament, and their pace spearhead Mark Wood missed the knockout stage after a back spasm. But that too made no difference to their overall approach, which is adapted to ground conditions and game situations with the most suitable players available.

Of course, it will not always come off, but there’s clarity of thought and complete buy-in from team members as well as selectors. Former Test captain Joe Root found no place in the white ball team despite being one of the world’s best batsmen technically.

England’s aggressive brand of white ball cricket applies to bowling as much as batting. Leg-spinner Adil Rashid is a wicket-taker in the middle overs with his variations and willingness to bowl slower to extract sharper turn when it’s warranted. His wickets of Suryakumar Yadav in the semi-final against India and Babar Azam in the final against Pakistan were match-winning contributions.

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In contrast, India’s finger-spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel mostly bowled flat and defensively. And even Pakistan’s leg-spinner Shadab Khan bowled too quick to extract the same amount of turn that Rashid got earlier on the Melbourne pitch.

Of course, how well the spinners bowl also depends on how much pressure the batsmen put on them. Ashwin, Axar, and Shadab were never allowed to settle because the England batsmen were willing to take chances and hit them out of the ground.

Other teams have a lot to learn from the way England play white ball cricket. But then, to execute that learning on the field will require the coach, captain, players, and selectors all being on the same page. A tall order.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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