Reformed character seizes his new chance
Bristol moment is line in the sand as Stokes earns his redemption, says Nick Hoult at the Oval
The England team have talked for some time about the new Ben Stokes and, after this performance, the rest of the country can be in no doubt that he is determined to forge a new reputation by seizing this World Cup.
The admiration for Stokes within the dressing room is one thing, but the public perception has largely been shaped by the events of a night out in Bristol that went badly wrong and ended up in a court case. Ever since he was cleared of affray in August last year he has been determined to make it up to his fellow players by training harder than anyone else, leaving them in awe of his work ethic.
It has not quite transferred out on the pitch, and this was the first real barnstorming performance of the second chapter of his career. But great all-rounders produce on
the grandest stages and this was one of those performances.
A responsible innings of 89, two wickets and a brilliant, outrageous catch in the outfield were just what England needed after promising to deliver so much in this tournament previously.
“That feeling for about five seconds when I was facing the crowd and everyone was cheering, it was phenomenal,” said Stokes about his catch. “I had a panic on for the catch, I was further in than I should have been. Luckily it stuck, I didn’t know how to react as it was a regulation catch if I was in the right position.”
Last week Stokes’s sponsor, Red Bull, released an advert of him haring around a warehouse, racing against a bleeping alarm. It was a Stokes net session on time-lapse.
But this man-of-the-match performance was seasoned maturity rather than superhuman striking. He played within himself to lead his side to a winning total by gauging the pitch and staying in, making 89 off 79 balls, his highest score since his arrest in Bristol. That moment has been a line in the sand. There was Stokes before Bristol, and Stokes after. But for a fuller picture of how he learnt to be more mature you have to go back just slightly further to the Champions Trophy a few months before his arrest.
The semi-final of the tournament in Cardiff in June 2017 was played on a similarly tricky surface to this one at the Oval, unsuited to England’s style of batting. It was an occasion, like yesterday, when they were expected to deliver in style.
Instead, they laboured and nobody embodied that struggle more than Stokes as he limped his way to 34, eating up 64 deliveries and failing to hit a boundary as England lost by eight wickets.
The same scenario was building at the Oval. At 247 for five when Jos Buttler dragged on, England were threatening to fall short of setting a demanding target for South Africa. But Stokes remained calm, and guided England to 300, refusing to lose his patience as they ground out 29 balls without a boundary between overs 41 to 45. Before his arrest Stokes made fewer runs, but at a quicker strike rate. Since then he has played like a proper batsman, averaging 55 at a strike rate of 85.66. There is no point going down in a blaze of glory. Glory only comes when you win.
“The messages from the batsmen early on was that it was tricky and try to get to 300. They were hard to get away, boundaries were hard to come by, but we did well to get 300-plus,” Stokes said.
Just think, England did not pick Stokes for the previous World Cup after the management decided to drop him following a poor series in Sri Lanka. Such short-sightedness is a thing of the past.
“His all-round game was on and that is great for us. It shows he is right on top of his game,” said Eoin Morgan, the England captain.