A few weeks ago, I reached my hometown with a heavy heart. My father had fallen seriously ill. It wasn’t the coronavirus, but just as daunting, because the doctors were stumped too. Given that he had been living on his own for years, my arrival was both timely and challenging. As we struggled to ease into the unfamiliarity of a caregiver-patient equation, my mind was a mess. The uncertainty was deafening. I’m a writer, so the headspace is precious. Words pay the bills. But I could barely watch a film, let alone analyze and review it. I struggled to form sentences. Anything other than his treatment felt like an unwelcome distraction.
Every other night, his groans scored the muted images of Ben Stokes on our television screen. Ben Stokes, the best all-rounder in the world. Ben Stokes, World Champion. Ben Stokes, Super Man. Ben Stokes, immortal. As fate would have it, my unscheduled return to my father coincided with the return of Stokes from his father. Stokes was just a stage ahead – or behind, depending on how one looks at it – in the life-cycle of perishing parents. While England celebrated Chris Woakes’ heroics in the Manchester Test against Pakistan in early August, Ben Stokes quietly dropped out of the squad. He reached his hometown, Christchurch, with a heavy heart. His father was seriously ill. He had been diagnosed with brain cancer earlier this year. Stokes went on an indefinite break from cricket. IPL 2020 felt distant. The Rajasthan Royals started the season not knowing when – or if – Stokes would play for them. A domestic T20 league during a global pandemic might not have been his top priority.
Yet, by the time I was battling to balance work with worry, Ben Stokes was back at work. His crisis was on indefinite hold. With his frail father’s blessings, he flew halfway across the globe to land in a biosecure bubble. The Royals had played their first six games without him. Stokes returned for the seventh. His decision to play the IPL was inspiring, but also a little intimidating.
In the last two years, Stokes has made pressure his personal toy. He has constructed moments of sporting history so architecturally sound that they form two of three man-made structures visible from outer space. His performances on the field, marked by “that” World Cup Final and “that” Headingley Test, have reclaimed the romance of international cricket. None of his peers – batsmen twice as good, bowlers twice as fast, but cricketers half as complete – have come close to owning the big stage like he has. His predecessor, Andrew Flintoff, nursed a brief boxing career post retirement. But it’s Stokes who has since been the ultimate pugilist. His trademark move has been the old “rope-a-dope”: the tactic of pretending to be on the ropes and lulling the opponent into a flurry of complacence. His counterpunching isn’t limited to the game. Whether it’s a drunken brawl outside a Bristol nightclub or an ill-fated last over of a World T20 final, Stokes’ nights have been darkest before his glorious dawns.
When Stokes joined the Royals, I was not alone in wondering if his superhuman legacy of mental strength had perhaps led him to overplay the necessity of a comeback. There was no real target, no redemption arc in wait. But a reputation was at stake. It was natural for Stokes to assume that, given the dizzying peaks he had scaled so far, he was obligated to scale the smaller ones too. After all, what was an IPL campaign compared to the setting suns of Lord’s and Leeds?
Yet, what followed was strangely therapeutic. Most nights while I sat in front of a blank word document on my laptop after feeding my father the last of his 16 pills, Ben Stokes confronted his own blank documents in the searing heat of the United Arab Emirates. His bat struggled to form statements. Stokes managed 110 runs in his first five knocks at just over a run a ball, without a single six. He barely bowled. His timing was a mess. He looked nothing like the man from summers past. Maybe he was still fretting about his father’s pills, maybe the IPL felt like an unwelcome distraction. In many ways, I felt seen. His agony was comforting. It doesn’t matter if you’re Ben Stokes or an Indian writer in an obscure corner of a smoky apartment, the fading of a parent is not a tragedy of prejudice.
We tend to associate sport with the physical and the technical. But like art itself, the core of sport is psychological. Cricket, too, is about creation. Only, its words are of a distinct visual language. When Stokes stepped out to chase against the Mumbai Indians, the most dominant team in the league, something snapped. There was relief, but also rage in every shot. He batted like a hero who was tired of feeling like a human. Stokes had been familiar with crises before, but they were mostly of his own doing. After all that he had conquered, he was surprised by the rubble of a crippled mind, not a broken body or shattered spirit. He vented. His century made light of a towering chase against the best bowling attack of the tournament. He finished unbeaten on 107, after being beaten into an explosion.
In the next match against Kings XI Punjab, the dominant team of the moment, Stokes bowled out of his skin – the way he bowled against a spirited West Indies in cricket’s first pandemic tour, making something out of nothing, repeatedly wrestling a dead pitch back to life. Two wickets were followed by a tone-setting 50: an all-round feat that not only rescucicated his team’s playoff aspirations but also ended his own IPL dry streak dating back to 2017. Now he had made magic in all three formats. By now, even the odds were exhausted of being defied.
I know what you’re thinking. An IPL century? In the same league as a World Cup final and Ashes triumph? You’re probably right, too. It’s not in the same league. Not a chance. Because it’s beyond. Ben Stokes’ return from the forests of future grief didn’t need the biggest stage. He didn’t need to prove himself in the eyes of the world. It didn’t matter that everyone was watching. It didn’t even matter that nobody was watching. He rose in a league beyond public adulation – in the arena of private absolution.
A miracle is an event so incomprehensible that it acquires the grammar of divinity. A dive deflecting the ball for five overthrows, a Super Over in a World Cup final, a spinner fumbling a run-out chance with the Ashes in balance, a 67-all-out team chasing down 362 with a 76-run last-wicket stand. Freak incidents. Lightning strikes. In a career packed with such moments, the miracles start to feel normal – and the normal starts to feel like miracles. In that sense, Stokes’ IPL 2020 journey has been his biggest miracle because it refuses to be one. It is no fairytale; Stokes and his Royals floundered at the final hurdle against KKR and finished last. It is painfully ordinary – full of suffering and perplexed risks and furious game-changing – and therefore comprehensible. It is Ben Stokes, the best all-rounder in the world. Ben Stokes, World Champion. Ben Stokes, Super Man. More than anything, it is Ben Stokes, mortal.
With my frail father’s blessings, I left home and crawled back to work. I toiled for timing and rhythm. And now I have a word document on my laptop in front of me, empty no more, flashing the story of Ben Stokes. In it, there are both full sentences and emphatic statements. I’m just a writer, but Stokes has been my author.
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