Everyone loves a good comeback story, but few sporting heroes have written so many Oscar-worthy scripts as English cricket’s pugnacious superstar Ben Stokes.
Yesterday marked the second time our national side’s talismanic all-rounder has taken a World Cup final by the scruff of the neck in circumstances that were perhaps as remarkable off the pitch as on it.
The first came during the summer of 2019, when he scored 84 to pip New Zealand in a heart-stopping run chase at Lord’s.
His heroics on that gripping afternoon, when a tied game came down to the final ball of a ‘super over’ (cricket’s equivalent of a penalty shootout), completed his rehabilitation from an incident nine months earlier that saw him suspended and fined for bringing the game into disrepute during a late-night street brawl.
It wasn’t his first or even second brush with notoriety. And there were times during the fallout when even the most ardent England fans wondered if his combustible personality and volatile relationship with alcohol might spell the end of his international career.
‘Everyone loves a good comeback story, but few sporting heroes have written so many Oscar-worthy scripts as English cricket’s pugnacious superstar Ben Stokes’
Instead, Stokes sealed national-treasure status weeks later, scoring a mesmerising 135 to beat Australia at Headingley.
His last-wicket stand of 76, with Jack Leach, capped one of the most unlikely victories in the 137-year history of the Ashes and elevated him to Sports Personality of the Year.
Fast forward to yesterday morning and the latest Ben Stokes epic, which played out in front of 80,000 screaming fans at Melbourne Cricket Ground, was in many ways also a stirring tale of redemption.
This time last year, the 31-year-old father-of-two’s career was in limbo. Some even wondered if mental health struggles might prevent him from playing again.
Back then, Stokes was four months into an ‘indefinite break’ having suffered a sort of nervous breakdown following the death of his father, Gerard, from cancer in December 2020.
In an aptly named recent documentary, Phoenix From The Ashes, the outwardly rugged athlete revealed he’d had to take medication to cope with acute depression, exacerbated by months on tour in the isolation of Covid ‘bubbles’.
Things culminated one morning in a panic attack that saw him ring his manager, Neil Fairbrother from the toilet of a hotel suite at 6am.
‘For a few years I was just putting everything emotionally into a glass bottle,’ he told film-maker Sam Mendes.
‘When something else would happen, I’d just keep filling that bottle. Eventually, the next thing that went in was going to make that glass explode. That’s what happened. It’s just a culmination of stuff over a long, long period of time.
David Willey of England celebrates winning the Pakistan v England Mens T20 Cricket World Cup Final match
‘I was catastrophising quite badly about [his dad]. I never thought I would be on medication to help me. I am not embarrassed or ashamed to say it because I needed the help at the time.’ Despite his swashbuckling persona and striking physique, 6ft Stokes is a complex man who has a difficult relationship with fame and has struggled with the amount of time his career requires him to be separated from his wife, Clare, a primary school teacher, and their young children Layton and Libby.
The situation on this front was exacerbated by the death of Gerard, who lived in New Zealand and was diagnosed with brain cancer in early 2020.
While Stokes was able to visit during his final months, he seems to have felt a certain amount of guilt at the fact that cricketing commitments prevented him from being there at the end. After the highs of 2019, a career that had ridden waves of triumph and disaster was at something approaching rock bottom.
‘The last time I saw Dad was leaving New Zealand to go to the Indian Premier League. That was dictated by cricket,’ was how he explained it. ‘He wanted me to go, he really loved me playing for Rajasthan Royals. But it made me hate cricket, I thought it was the reason I didn’t see my dad before he died. I should have opened up about it sooner.’
For five months last year, Stokes therefore took a complete break from the game, returning just before Christmas for a disastrous Ashes series that England lost by four games to nil.
When the side then lost a series in the West Indies, Joe Root resigned as Test captain. National selectors asked Stokes to succeed him. It was quite a gamble. Yet the result has been sensational.
In a remarkable summer, England whitewashed New Zealand, beat India, and won a series at home to South Africa playing a highly-aggressive form of the game built on destructive batting and fierce self-belief.
Led by Stokes, who took 18 wickets and scored 368 runs, they regularly chased down scores north of 250 (and on one occasion 378) to win matches that at times seemed destined to end in defeat.
Perhaps ironically, given that he has now cemented his status on the list of great Englishmen, Ben Stokes was in fact born in New Zealand, where Gerard was a hard-as-nails rugby league player famed for once choosing to have a finger amputated after dislocating it during a game (on the grounds that it would allow him to return to training more quickly).
The family moved to Cumbria when Ben was 12 so that Gerard could take up a job coaching Workington, a rugby league club he’d played at in the early 1980s.
It was at his local cricket club, Cockermouth, where Stokes started making his mark.
‘My first memories of Ben were when he came to the nets as a 12-year-old,’ coach John Grainger once recalled.
‘He’d stay right until the end, when it was getting very dark, and I’d put the headlights of my car on so he could play a little longer.’
England Cricketers Ben Stokes and Alex Hales are caught in a street fight on September 24, 2017
Stokes was soon able to hit balls out of the ground. But his reputation as a hothead was also established. At 13 he broke his hand punching a fire door in frustration and anger after getting out.
After leaving school at 16 with GCSEs in PE and design and technology, Stokes joined the academy team of his county side, Durham, turning pro at just 17.
But after being called into Durham’s first team in 2009, he began to show an unfortunate knack for generating headlines off the field.
Warning signs emerged during 2011, when he was fined and censured by Durham after he received a police caution for obstructing an officer making an arrest during a night out in Newcastle. ‘I woke in the morning and was given breakfast through the meal flap in the door,’ he said of his night in the cells. ‘It was like a scene from The Shawshank Redemption.’
By February 2013, he was a regular in the England one-day side. But his prospects of making the Test team suffered a serious knock after he was sent home from an England Lions tour of Australia with team-mate Matt Coles, for flouting rules about drinking.
Coach Andy Flower told him: ‘You don’t want to play for England. You just want to p**s it up the wall with your mates.’
Stokes purportedly replied: ‘I’ll prove you wrong.’
Jos Buttler of England celebrates with his wife Louise Buttler and children after winning the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup
In 2014, he missed the World 20/20 cup due to a hand injury, after punching a dressing room locker after being dismissed during a warm-up game.
His relationship with alcohol also sparked concern. Stokes in 2016 told an interviewer that his favourite tipple was Jagerbombs (a mixture of Red Bull and the liqueur Jagermeister). When asked how many he could sink on a night out said: ‘I’ve lost count after 20.’
Those comments came back to haunt him the following summer, when he was caught out at 3am in Manchester bar, Crazy Pedro’s, hours before the second day of the Test match against South Africa.
Asked about his nocturnal habits shortly after he happily admitted drinking during five-day Test matches, saying: ‘Why not? We’re grown men, go out, have a few pints. I’m 26, not 14. I don’t have to drink Diet Coke with dinner.’
A few days later, Stokes was charged with affray after being videoed brawling with two men outside a Bristol nightclub while on England duty.
When the case came to court, he denied being drunk (but admitted to having consumed six vodkas) and argued that he’d been coming to the aid of two gay men who were being subjected to homophobic abuse. The jury agreed and in August 2018 acquitted him, but an England disciplinary panel subsequently found Stokes guilty of bringing the game into disrepute, fined him £30,000 and suspended him for eight games.
Others might have been tempted to kiss goodbye to international cricket and instead earn a fortune as a gun for hire on the T20 circuit. But Stokes is made of sterner stuff. Three years – and two World Cups – later, let’s raise a glass (or six) to this comeback king.