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When his glorious summer of 2019 ended, it seemed unthinkable that – but for a bit-part role in three ODIs – Ben Stokes would not play before the home English crowds that adore him for the next two summers.
A pandemic intervened first, and now it is a mystery when Stokes will next play again. Aged 30, this has been Stokes’ lost summer as he has managed a finger injury and his mental wellbeing. Strokes has had a tumultuous time in recent years, from the Bristol affair of 2017 to his father’s year-long illness and death in late 2019 via becoming a global megastar.
Only those closest to Stokes knows exactly what he is thinking or how he is feeling. He has spoken to his great friend Joe Root a couple of times on the phone, before the India series and between the Second and Third Tests. But otherwise England’s players have heard little from him, despite reaching out. They are leaving him to his own devices, quietly spending time with his family and relaxing playing video games.
Perhaps the best public indication of his headspace came on Sunday when, innocuously enough, he shared an Instagram post. It was about scheduling in football, and the demands and expectation on the modern player. As an all-format international star with an IPL deal, Stokes knows all about those demands, which have been worsened by Covid.
The three games Stokes did play this summer came in less than ideal circumstances. He was already playing for Durham – perhaps, in hindsight, prematurely, after his finger injury – and received an SOS (Save Our Series) call from ECB top brass for the three ODIs against Pakistan, with the first team ruled out by Covid-19. Two of them, at Lord’s and Edgbaston, were due to be played in front of big crowds when they were still a novel concept.
Ben’s Babes, as Nasser Hussain dubbed them, were a peculiar collection of international nearly men and honest county pros. The coaches and support staff were all new, too. The presence of Chris Silverwood, the head coach who came back from holiday, and especially Stokes gave the whole project a semblance of validity.
Instilling in the rag-tag bunch Eoin Morgan’s philosophy of all-out attack, Stokes proved a superb captain and binding force. Somehow, they beat a strong Pakistan side 3-0. In two innings, Stokes scored 54 from 54 balls, while five wicketless overs cost 37 runs.
When at the crease, Stokes got a rapturous reception when flaying a few boundaries. It felt like he was throwing the bat to lead by example with Morgan’s brand of cricket; looking back, he was probably in too much pain to do anything else.
Broken fingers are an occupational hazard for cricketers. The one suffered by Stokes at the IPL was serious, requiring an operation and causing pain for months afterwards. It is possible that the injury hampers him for the remainder of his career.
Reflecting on the series in his Daily Mirror column, Stokes admitted that he would never have played in “normal circumstances”, and only the call of duty made him “grin and bear it”. He had an injection to ease the “ridiculous pain”.
After a few weeks off, Stokes played two games for Northern Superchargers in the Hundred. He bowled well but made just five off seven in both innings and, in the second, dropped a simple (by his standards) catch on the boundary that allowed Alex Hales to guide Trent Rockets to victory. This was another moment that looked simple enough at the time, but probably had plenty to do with that finger. Ahead of the Test series against India, Stokes stepped away from the game.
Who knows when we will see him next? He is not expected to be in tomorrow’s T20 World Cup squad and at this stage, the prospects of him playing in the Ashes are slim, too (although he is far from the only senior England player in that position).
It seems self-explanatory that a man feeling unable to take part in the home summer would be reticent about the best part of three months in Australia, including time in quarantine, and that is before you even consider that he has school-age children. Perhaps they could get out at Christmas, but would likely spend much of their holiday quarantining.
There is sadness there, in the fact that Stokes had two away Ashes series in his “prime”; just as he was coming into it 2017/18 and now in 2021/22. The likelihood is that for very different reasons he will miss both.
Stokes debuted in Australia in 2013 as a round diamond, securing a maiden hundred in Perth and five-wicket haul in Sydney. Perhaps he will make it to 2025/26 but it is hard to believe he will be the same force he has been in recent years.
Rightly, there is no pressure on Stokes to return from England. He will be allowed as long as he requires to get himself right. When the time is right for Stokes, what a welcome he will receive.