It was Joe Root who probably best summed up Ben Stokes and a career that will for ever be defined by far more than just the numbers. Speaking in Phoenix from the Ashes, the documentary about the life and times of England’s champion all-rounder, Root put it simply: “The big moments find him.”
One certainly found Stokes at Eden Gardens six years ago, the last time he played a world final decked out in red. That fateful deciding over he bowled to Carlos Brathwaite saw four successive sixes soar into the night sky like fireworks, West Indies were crowned T20 world champions and a seemingly indomitable all-rounder was left on his haunches, utterly broken and inconsolable.
But if those demons weren’t already exorcised at Lord’s in 2019, then on a tense evening in front of 80,000 spectators at the MCG, Stokes certainly whipped out the sacred relics and holy water. An unbeaten 52 from 49 balls during the clutch overs of a tense chase of 138 – remarkably his first half-century in T20 international cricket – guided Jos Buttler’s England to a deserved victory over Pakistan, and with it they became the first side to hold both the International Cricket Council’s men’s World Cups.
Not only did this turn England’s white-ball transformation since 2015 into a legacy of silverware for the current generation – a feat underlined by the absences of first-choice picks such as Jonny Bairstow, Jofra Archer, Mark Wood and Dawid Malan on the night – it also offered a reminder that the analytics which dominate cricket’s discourse only go so far. A satisfactory metric to rank the sheer gumption of players in pressure situations is yet to be devised but if it was then Stokes, to pinch a line from Brian Clough, would surely be in the top one.
Striding out to the middle with England 32 for two in the fourth over, an equation of 106 needed from 99 balls may have appeared relatively straightforward. Yet on a pitch offering nip and bounce to arguably the best seam attack of the tournament, with the bulk of the gargantuan crowd cheering for the side in green and the all-important trophy glistening on its plinth, this felt anything but. Sam Curran and Adil Rashid had touched perfection in the first innings yet nothing was settled.
Not all of what followed was pretty. At times the white Kookaburra ball whistled past Stokes’s outside edge with alarming regularity, one review from Babar Azam showing the wonderfully zesty Naseem Shah had missed willow by a matter of atoms. And though England needed 61 runs from the final 10 overs, the thumbscrews then applied by Babar’s men turned this into 49 from the last six. Had the much-feared rain stopped the match at this moment, Pakistan were winners on Duckworth-Lewis-Stern.
As was the case against New Zealand three years ago, fortune went England’s way, Shaheen Afridi twisting his knee during a fine catch to remove Harry Brook and then aborting his second spell one ball into the 16th over.
When the part-time off-spin of Iftikhar Ahmed was called upon to plug the gap, Stokes and Moeen Ali saw their chance, the ensuing blitz of 26 runs from eight balls decisive. The six Stokes struck off Ahmed’s final ball even echoed his treatment of Nathan Lyon at Headingley in 2019 – long-off just beaten – if a further reminder of his liking for pressure was needed.
And to think Stokes was something of a contentious pick for this tournament. Despite an MVP award in the 2017 Indian Premier League and prowess in all three departments, the format had somehow become his weakest suit. Before the flight out he averaged 19 with the bat in T20 internationals and 37 with the ball, while a propensity to need a sighter at the start of his innings prompted some fears he might gum up the works of an aggressive team.
Were sentiment and celebrity overriding the cold hard facts? Stokes had also not played short-form cricket during the preceding 12 months – a period in which he took time off for mental health reasons – and, after a sapping summer as Test captain, he was spared the warm-up series in Pakistan. But Buttler and Matthew Mott, now a title-winning leadership duo in their first year together, had no doubts. And if an ice-cool unbeaten 42 in the must-win group stage victory against Sri Lanka hadn’t vindicated the call, the debate is now surely settled.
If there was one sadness about this final then it came with the overnight news that David English, the music mogul, actor, author and impresario of the Bunbury festival had died at the age of 76 following a heart attack. The team that won the 50-over World Cup in 2019 contained 10 players who cut their teeth at the annual under-15s tournament and, amid the celebrations that night at Lord’s, they made sure they telephoned “the Loon” – as Ian Botham dubbed him – to share the happiness.
When once asked about his memories of the teenage Stokes during the 2006 Bunbury festival, English recalled one of the evenings in Nando’s when the all-rounder secretly tipped peri-peri sauce in Root’s glass of coke. It was, he said, an example of the bonds of friendship forged at a competition which has showcased more than 1,000 first-class players and over 100 England cricketers since it began in 1987.
It was fitting, therefore, that Buttler’s band of brothers should pay tribute to the impact English had on them with black armbands. The big moment found Stokes and, unlike poor Root’s cocktail back in the day, the result was certainly sweet.