Ben Stokes, and the year that never passed
- May 20 might be remembered solely for this catch, but it was the day Ben Stokes heralded his arrival at the World Cup.
- The world has stopped over the last three months almost like it didn't want Stokes' 2019 to pass.
Let's talk about Mark Greatbatch. A towering figuring standing at 6'5", with neat, peanut-coloured hair, covering the balding patches of his head like a hairnet. The furrows of his forehead and crinkles around his eye were matched by loose folds of skin. They told the tale of a man who wasn't as old as he looked.
When Greatbatch wielded the cricket bat, you never knew what was coming. Once in 1989, he batted out three days of a Test match, 14 hours at the crease, scoring an unbeaten 146 from 485 balls, against Australia. He received a standing ovation during his walk out of the ground, after having played the innings considered by many as one of the greatest ever in the game under the circumstances.
Then, come the 1992 World Cup of Cricket. Martin Crowe, captain extraordinaire, famed for his bent for innovation, asked his spinner Dipak Patel to open the bowling. The reasoning being that the 15-over powerplay would make the batsman try something out of the blue. Ironically, or ingeniously, he sent out Greatbatch as New Zealand's pinch hitter, to take the shine off the new ball and take advantage the field restrictions.
If you dug out the highlights of his half-tons against the West Indies and South Africa, they would be replete with batty-headed flat hits. He played rock-footed heaves that rubbished all laws of the game, or scandalous pick-up shots on the leg side. Against the West Indian quartet, he skipped steps down the track and hit them over long-on.
Since the cricket ball is a projectile, hitting it flat is not hard, because the ball covers the farthest range when hit at an angle 45 degrees with the ground. To take the ball a safe mile with a flat hit, your bat swing must be ferocious, base rock solid, and the connection late enough for the ball to be struck off an angle. A la the Jayasuriya square cut.
Ben Stokes' catch in the 2019 World Cup
So when Andile Phehlukwayo hijacked Adil Rashid towards mid-wicket, eyes pointed not in the direction of the outfield, but at the image of the batsman. His base was set, timing good enough, and bat swing relentless. The ball thudded off the bat so sweetly, like an explosion due to take place miles away from London.
If any eyebrows were at all raised, it wasn't about the need for the shot; it was more about its productivity. South Africa were 180-6, chasing 312 in the World Cup opener, following another middle-order collapse that left them 132 to chase off 16 overs. They were batting on a slimy Oval track, with only Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, and Imran Tahir left to come.
Perhaps the only reason the match wasn't already declared dead was because Phehlukwayo could strike the long ball. Although it was a year ago, he had a 5-ball 23 under his belt, scored exclusively off Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav in their primes.
Adil Rashid is a similar breed of leg-spinner with penny-wise figures of 0-33 (7). Rashid doesn't get his wickets by guile. He gets them with spin. He isn't too fast through the air, and doesn't get the ball to drift much. He just drops them at a spot so inviting to hit, and the large number of revs he imparts with his doorknob-like wrist does the trick.
That reflects on his record too- an overwhelming 35.2% of his wickets come from the bat missing the ball, with Chahal attaining 21% of his wickets this way. Or the fact that he has picked 146 out of the 150 wickets picked up by English leg spinners in the ODI format.
Everything about him – the lack of drift, the paucity of pace, the impending turn off the surface- pointed towards the obvious counter-ploy of horizontal bat shots. And for a man like Phehlukwayo, short and sturdy, with his legs not long like those of Ben Stokes to cover the width of a lake, it was inviting enough.
The asking rate, combined with the facts of him being the last recognized batsman and the allure of Rashid's flight, made sure that he had nothing to lose. He also had the world to gain, with a free-wheeling license to punt with his shot.
And so when he connected, the sound off the bat was so pristine and yet so thunderous, that the rain gods had a conference about replacing it with the sound of lightning.
Few hits arrive that flat. It had all the makings of a flat six written across its face – timing, bat swing, and power. The shot also boasted of a balance that came from the most formidable stance in all sport, with both feet planted two feet apart.
But then came an elephant hand in the way. Ben Stokes's catch wasn't just unprecedented, it defied all the canons and legislatives of the sport. He would wait a second before deciding which way to run, a second being an eternity relative to the time it took to arrive at the fence.
He would then punt over which hand to use, which way to land, even if to dive or keep running. It was far from the false nuances of perfection – it was vile, misjudged, fell a metre away from him, and needlessly complicated, and Ben Stokes even took his eyes off the ball.
But like Bradman's 99.94, and Tendulkar's 241 devoid of cover drives, the imperfections are just what make it perfect to relate with. It wasn't a fairy tale that just fell in place, it was a poem that dissonated in its every line.
If for once you shouldn't have been in the stadium, and must've watched the match on your TV instead, this was it. The television replays just confirmed the glory of the catch.
Talk of the moment: World Cup opener, the start of the English summer, right at the heart of the capital of the cricketing world, that was primed to bring back kids into a senescent game stampeded by football.
Talk of context: an impending World Cup win and one of the greatest Ashes series ever. And there was everything in common between Ben Stokes and Andile Phehlukwayo: both born right handers, both left-handed bats, both right arm medium bowlers, and forced to perform on tracks like the one at The Oval.
And yet one of them was run-of-the-mill, the other a modern sporting genius.
It can't have happened that all of it was over in five seconds. Ben Stokes runs, full tilt to his left, realises that he has misjudged the ball. It is soon going to land behind him unless he makes an adjustment massive enough to cover for the slip-up.
Ben Stokes' only chances are to keep sprinting, reach the vicinity of the target before the ball and dive backwards, or to keep running and make an almost impossible diagonal dive to his left.
The first chance would demand him to set a stable base before the dive, to capture enough height to intercede the ball, which might take him more time than he had. The second would bring him the conundrum of sticking out his left hand, the unnatural one, and trusting the ball to hopefully land into his hands. Both impossibilities, and Ben Stokes doesn't choose between them.
He runs full speed, stutters a foot away from the line of the ball, galumphs a step backward with his left foot awkwardly, and dives in the air. Both hands are indecisively raised chest-high, the left higher than the right.
But at the last moment, he punts again- stretching the right hand would mean stretching his obliques, a test of his fitness. Add to that the fact that he wouldn't be able to keep his eye on the ball. But if it gave him better control, better conviction, perhaps it was the better option, the one to punt with...
The right arm goes out, over his head and shoulders in search of the ball. The timing of Ben Stokes' jump is great, although he can't see the ball. Fleetingly, his eyes fall upon the crowd and the green blades of grass underneath him. He kicks the air with his foot to keep flying, like an underwater swimmer.
And before he knows it, Ben Stokes feels the leather on his palms … and its sound, deafened by the screams from the crowd.
Even by the most far-fetched of hyperboles, it wasn't the greatest ever catch. Ben Stokes doesn't even think it was his personal best. But the sheer fact that you can make this match all about Ben Stokes without a word of his knock of 89, or his wicket of Tahir, or him being the man to start the match and end it for England, is proof enough of the phenomenon he is.
As is how the world has stopped over the last three months almost like it didn't want that year to pass. And Ben Stokes wasn't turning heads over with a superhuman catch for the first time- the Trent Bridge catch and the boundary grab of AB de Villiers were perhaps better.
But like that New Zealand side, this World Cup started with a spinner knocking a batsman's off-pole out for a duck. This World Cup punted back to the '92 tournament format. This World Cup was full of the kind of uncertainties that would put the Brexit to shame.
The aesthetics, the forebodings, the announcements of what was to come: the Ben Stokes catch was full of these, a magical start to a World Cup that was truly his.
And considering its eerie connection with New Zealand, and the alluring aura of hyperboles, no one should be surprised if Greatbatch called our man the finest cricketer ever, despite the passing of a full year. Because Ben Stokes, is Sir Ben Stokes.
Published 01 Jun 2020, 12:54 IST