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West Indies vs England 2021-22


Ben Stokes is bigger than you realise. Standing there at six foot aplenty, with his biceps glistening with sweat having just run a million laps of the boundary in about two-and-a-half minutes, and his shoulders set as wide as most people are tall, he is, by any metric, physically intimidating.

“I would have liked to have been in better physical shape when I was in Australia,” Stokes told the press pack in Antigua, without a hint of irony.

It’s an insight into a man who has reached the top of his sport by setting preposterously high standards. And now that results aren’t going the way he wishes, he is lifting them again.

“If you’re not willing to keep learning you’re going about it the wrong way. Even the likes of Virat [Kohli], he’s constantly working on his game, never happy with where they’re at.”

Stokes always wants to do more. He’ll bat, bowl and field for you all day long and then pick up your laundry on the way home.

He’s a man who, rather than carrying an old lady’s shopping across the road, would instead pick up Granny as a whole and drop her on the other side.

“Anything else, Barbara? Where’s the bus stop? That’s fine, I’ll take you.”

And off Ben goes, with a week’s worth of shopping under one arm and a bemused 84-year old woman under the other.

This determination to never let anyone down is why it’s too simplistic to separate Ben the man from Stokes the cricketer. And why his poor showing in the Ashes hurt him so much.

“When I look back on it I felt I let myself down,” Stokes said, after making 236 runs at 23.60 in the series, and four wickets at 71.50 in three-and-a-half Tests before succumbing to a side strain. “But the thing that really grinds me the most is that I let a lot of other people down. I never want to feel that way again.

“It’s just that I could have been better. Obviously I had a long break which never helps. I couldn’t do much in three or four months so I was always behind.”

Stokes is quick to emphasise that this didn’t mean he felt he returned too soon from his mental health break during the 2021 home season, nor that the time off was the reason for his poor performances, because those “would be excuses”. And Ben Stokes doesn’t do excuses.

But it does highlight the difficulty he faces in balancing his needs as a person and player.

He took time off to look after himself, which meant Ben got better but Stokes got worse. And through Stokes being worse, Ben feels he’s let people down. Which he cannot stand.

Stokes is not the first to struggle with balancing the doomed pursuit of perfection with maintaining mental wellbeing. If anything, it is one of the greatest human challenges of all time, and it’s not one that’s going to be solved by putting down the bat forever or taking a few extra throw-downs at the end of play.

“I just wasn’t me [in Australia]. I wasn’t able to impact the game as I would like to or how I would normally do and everything just seemed harder. You can’t put your finger on something like that too easily.”

Part of Stokes’ attempts to strike this balance lies in unloading his schedule, so that he can prioritise what really matters to him. It is not so much a compromise of reining himself back in, but selecting the moments where he can fully commit. And for this comeback year, that meant pulling out of the IPL mega-auction, and putting all of his energies back into England.

“Over the last couple of years, with how the schedule’s been and all the cricket that gets played these days, I had a chance to have a good look at things going forward and when it came down to it, the real thing that got me excited and got everything going out of all three formats was Test cricket.

“That was a big decision to come out of the IPL, to make sure that I was able to give everything I possibly could to this Test team going forward.”

And there is no doubt that Stokes is doing exactly that. With Operation Red-Ball Reset underway, more responsibility has been placed on the likes of himself, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow to lead a new generation into the team.

“There’s obviously been a big change with Stuart and Jimmy but, with all the respect to them, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, they’re not here. And what we can concentrate on are the guys who are here and the opportunity they now have.

“Any side that doesn’t have Jimmy and Stuart in, you’re obviously missing that experience and class that they bring. But we can’t change that. All we can do is bring all our energy that we’ve got here and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Somehow, you don’t doubt it.

Cameron Ponsonby is a freelance cricket writer in London. @cameronponsonby



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