On the 25th of September 2017, Ben Stokes was involved in a street brawl near a nightclub in Bristol. The cricketing world, especially its English core, wasn't new to witnessing their star all-rounder flaunting some of the odd 'bad-boy' behavior.
Nearly 3 decades ago, their greatest all-rounder, Sir Ian Botham, had introduced them to that side of cricketing life. That picture of Sir Ian puffing on a cigar, fresh off from scoring an unbelievable 149 not out, leading England to an improbable victory at Headingley, wouldn't be out-of-place in a movie.
Freddie Flintoff, 2005 Ashes hero, looking a tad hungover after being presented at 10 Downing Street, further added to the folklore surrounding great England pace-bowling all-rounders.
Impish, cheeky, and gifted by the truckload are terms you'd associate with all three gentlemen. But the drama that would pan out over the course of the next 15 months after that night in Bristol seemed to derail the career of the man whose contributions are single-handedly responsible for English cricket's two greatest moments.
Ben Stokes' Test debut for England was a baptism by fire. Considering it came during the Ashes series of 2013-14 in Australia, it was just that, fire. Part of an England squad that would not only relinquish the urn but also lose three of its outstanding players in Kevin Pietersen, Graeme Swann and Jonathan Trott, it was character building of the most belligerent kind for Ben Stokes.
He ended up being the sole English centurion in that dismal series, scoring a heroic 120 on a minefield in Perth, a Test match that is sometimes more famous for Ryan Harris' delivery nearly ending up in the hands of first slip after hitting a crack somewhere between middle and leg on a WACA pitch opening up by the minute.
Ben Stokes- The beginnings
Ben Stokes' unique offerings of pace along with the his obvious batting capabilites had allowed him to be earmarked for the future, even as an initial bout of indifferent form raised questions about his place in the team.
A spectator's seat was what he could manage for the 2015 World Cup as England's woes in Australia extended to beyond the Ashes. But those questions were answered when he raced to an 85-ball hundred against New Zealand soon after, the fastest ever scored at Lord's.
A place in the 2015 Ashes squad followed, as England retained the Ashes under the stewardship of Alastair Cook and sought to erase the memories of the previous series. He made the 2015-16 tour of South Africa his own, with his astounding 258 at Cape Town in a 399-run partnership with Jonny Bairstow aiding his 411 runs in the series and leading him to be adjudged as Man of the Series.
Shocked and awed
But Ben Stokes would be tested again, as has almost always been the case in his career. A limited-overs England team revolutionized under the captaincy of Eoin Morgan, impressively reached the final of the 2016 World T20 where they would play the West Indies.
With 19 to get off the last over, Carlos Brathwaite smashed Stokes for 4 consecutive sixes as Ian Bishop's immortal words," Carlos Brathwaite! Remember the name!" rang through the Eden Gardens. An emotionally drained Ben Stokes, down on his haunches in the middle, could not hide anywhere as he willed for the earth to open up and take him in.
With one hand seemingly on the trophy, England had slipped at this, the most final of hurdles. His form, though, had been good throughout the tournament, and it continued after the tournament, with centuries in Bangladesh, India and the 2017 Champions Trophy adding to his stature as the best all-rounder in world cricket.
And then came that fateful night in Bristol.
That night in Bristol
Run-ins with the authorities were not new with Ben Stokes, as was evident when he was sent home from an England Lions tour in 2012 for ignoring a team curfew. It meant that he would not put on an England shirt for the entirety of that year.
But the Bristol incident, along with the stories coming out of it, caused long term damage. A court trial, a lost sponsorship, a £30,000 fine and an 8-match ban (which had been served during the course of the trial) later, Stokes rejoined a team that had been blanked 4-0 in Australia, and was wobbling under the leadership of Joe Root in the Test arena.
Such was the effect of the Bristol incident, even Wikipedia does not mention any of Stokes' noteworthy performances during 2018.
Ben Stokes- Redemption at the grandest stages
After avoiding a repeat of 2015 and ensuring his place in the 2019 World Cup squad, Stokes firmly put all memories of Bristol to rest as he played the lead role in the year's two biggest blockbusters, the 2019 World Cup Final and the Ashes.
Redemption was attained as he smashed Pat Cummins through mid-wicket at Headingley, the site of the last 'greatest Test innings ever', as Stokes' unbeaten 135, in a 76-run 10th wicket stand with Jack Leach kept England alive in a series that nearly ended in a first Ashes series loss against Australia at home since 2005.
Ben Stokes then went one better than Sir Ian in a World Cup final and then chose to stage his magnum opus at the same venue as him and starred as England won the most thrilling World Cup final in history.
These two performances led to Ben Stokes being named as the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year and the ICC Player of the Year. Amidst all the joy that the World Cup had brought, his performances continued to stand out with a Man-of-the-Series performance away at South Africa at the turn of the year.
Ben Stokes- Looking ahead
The COVID-19 lockdown has prevented what could have been another fine summer for Ben Stokes, but all such thought was quickly put away as Test cricket returned and, on the 8th of July, Benjamin Andrew Stokes led England out for the 1st Test against the West Indies as its 81st Test captain.
England may have lost that Test and the batting may have been left wanting again, but Ben Stokes has again taken up the mantle by stroking a masterful 176 in the second Test as England look to stage a comeback in the series.
This has, in a way, been the USP of Ben Stokes the player. The ability to right previous wrongs in a manner no one can predict, and in a manner that leaves naysayers wondering why they questioned him in the first place.
He may have lost his only Test thus far as captain, and it is still a matter of speculation whether Ben Stokes is indeed England's choice to succeed Joe Root. But the journey that, inspite of the obvious bumps along the way, has seen him rise up to the most important job in English cricket should not be lost on anyone, especially the modern-day cricket fan. We have seen a fair few transformations in this era.
Steve Smith went from a leg-spinning all-rounder to every bowler's nightmare. Virat Kohli became the closest thing to a run-making machine after struggling to break into the Test arena.
Ben Stokes' story, on the other hand, may be such that one may privately not hope for oneself, but then again, there aren't many who could possibly reverse sweep the best spinner in the world, with 56 runs to win and 1 wicket in hand, for six. Especially with the Ashes on the line.Published 19 Jul 2020, 12:33 IST