3 April 2016, Kolkata. Ben Stokes is on his haunches, wide-eyed, in complete disbelief.
Defending 18 off the last over- a tall ask for the chasing side in any format- he had been entrusted to win his country the World T20. He’d bowled the last over for just one run and two wickets just days before, in the semi final against New Zealand. It was nothing new to him. Instead this time it went very differently. Whereas before he was triumphant, this time victory was snatched away from him, and England, by Carlos Braithwaite.
England would have been quite pleased he was on strike, rather than Marlon Samuels who was dragging the West Indies along with his 85 off 65. A few minutes, and four sixes later, they would never want to hear his name again.
A brutal demolition job on Stokes, with the first ball - a leg stump half volley - dispatched over square leg. The second over long on, then the third over long off. One run to win, three balls left. The game was already over, job done. Stokes was stunned, sixes raining down around him like shells in no man’s land. But there was nowhere to take cover and Braithwaite’s last six is the final, almost redundant killer blow.
Stokes sinks to the ground, wishing it would swallow him up. It’s impossible to know how many times he will relive that over as he closes his eyes at night- countless seems a safe bet- but such is the all action nature of his game it’s an equally safe bet he will one day have the opportunity to redeem himself.
14 August, Bristol. Ben Stokes is acquitted of affray after a very public, and very lengthy, trial that began with an ill-fated night out in the city nearly a year before. It’s taken a toll on his private, public and professional life, as he missed out on tours to Australia and New Zealand, and had every inch of his character examined by every inch of every column and every inch of every TV screen. For some, it will remain an irredeemable stain on his reputation, no matter the legal judgement. For Stokes though, he just wants to move on and get back to doing what he does best. Playing cricket at the highest level.
14 July 2019, Lords. Ben Stokes is once again on his haunches. England have bowled well and restricted New Zealand to 241 in the World Cup Final, but have stumbled as they try to get their chase going. Stokes came to the crease with England at 71/3.
Jason Roy, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow were gone. Soon after Stokes joined him at the crease, captain Eoin Morgan went, a superb catch in the deep from the superb Lockie Ferguson seeing to him. England were reeling at 86/4 and once again Stokes found himself at the forefront of a final. A chance to redeem himself. A chance for the New Zealander, embraced by England at the age of 12, to break the hearts of his birthland.
About an hour and a half later, the game - and many England fans’ heart rates - had calmed down somewhat. Stokes put on 110 runs alongside Jos Buttler for the sixth wicket, and England needed 46 from the next 34 balls. Difficult, but manageable between the two of them.
Then Buttler - the one man England would have picked above any other in this situation - was caught by Tim Southee in the deep. A brilliant knock of 59 was over, and England’s ever fainter hopes relied once again on Ben Stokes. As they did against Sri Lanka in the group stage, where he got them so near but not quite near enough. As they did against Australia in the group stage, where his brilliant 89 was in vain as England collapsed around him. Third time lucky?
Lucky doesn’t quite begin to describe the sheer chaos that was the next half hour of Stokes’ career. In particular the last two overs of England’s chase. First, in the 48th over, Stokes - attempting to hit Ferguson over long on - only finds Trent Boult on the boundary. But Boult, trying to regain his balance, steps on the rope before he can relay the ball to Martin Guptill. A critical but understandable lack of spatial awareness, or a scarcely believable slice of fortune going England’s way?
It doesn’t really matter either way - a six to Stokes and a six to England. By the very finest of margins, by the skin of their teeth, by the grace of the cricketing gods, England dragged themselves closer to 242.
If that wasn’t extraordinary enough, the final over- a chance at redemption for Boult after that error of judgement- had one last trick up its sleeve. England needed 15 to win. First up, two dot balls, then Stokes crunched the third into the crowd at midwicket for another six. Nine to win.
Stokes mowed the next ball along the ground to Southee in the deep, and knew he needed two. He needed to be on strike. He needed to be on strike so badly that he dived to try and beat Southee’s throw to the keeper. And as he dived, the ball smacked into the back of his outstretched bat and pinged towards the boundary. Two runs plus four overthrows. Six runs. A scarcely believable slice of fortune, but six runs nonetheless. By the very finest of margins, by the skin of their teeth, by the grace of the cricketing gods, England dragged themselves closer to 242.
Two balls later, Stokes had only just squeezed two singles - with his partners ran out going for a second both times. England have only dragged themselves to 241 and now face a super-over; an utterly brilliantly incomprehensible match has managed to conjure up a dramatic encore.
Ben Stokes is once again on his haunches - he has been at several times over the course of this innings - but this time it is through sheer exhaustion rather than despair. He probably knows it will be him facing the super-over, though he cannot know for sure he’ll have to run three off the first ball. Then run a single, then hit a boundary, then run another single. He can’t possibly know it will be enough to win England the World Cup, especially after James Neesham sends Jofra Archer’s first legitimate delivery for six in New Zealand’s super-over.
Of course, it was enough. Through sheer grit, bloody mindedness and exceptional talent, Stokes has dragged England kicked and screaming to a win that some will try to argue is a mere technicality, against the spirit of cricket, or unfair. For the lad from Christchurch, adopted by Durham, it is so much more. It’s vindication and retribution and glory all in one.
Both personally and professionally, Stokes has been through the ringer in recent years, but now he’s man of the match at a World Cup final - his redemption. Who knows how many times he’ll relive those crazy nine hours on the 14 July when he closes his eyes at night? Countless seems a safe bet. Rest assured the ghosts of Kolkata and Bristol will haunt him no longer.