It was when Ben Stokes was watching Doug Campbell, one of the country’s leading hand and finger specialists, perform a second operation on his left index finger that he knew he would be playing cricket again soon.
Stokes, thanks to a local anesthetic, was able to see in detail the work being performed on his finger, which had been badly broken taking a catch off Chris Gayle in Rajasthan Royal’s opening match of the IPL season in Mumbai on April 12. It had not healed properly after the first operation, carried out two weeks after he sustained the injury, and caused him “unbelievable pain” when he rushed his return to cricket.
Being a team man he was unable to say no when Durham asked him to play in July and then England came calling when the one-day squad were isolated by a Covid outbreak. Stokes captained England in a three-match series with Pakistan and knew his finger was in a bad way. Movement in the joint was so limited he feared the injury would be career-ending. His mental health spiralled downwards as a result, and in July it was announced that he would be taking an indefinite break from cricket.
The idea that Stokes - the cricketing superhero who had won England the World Cup and played the greatest Ashes innings of them all in the same summer in 2019 - could be susceptible to psychological distress sent shockwaves through sport. Players realised that if it could happen to Ben, it could happen to them.
But it was also true that Stokes was subject to very specific circumstances. He had not been able to grieve properly for the death of his father, Ged, from brain cancer in 2020: he did manage to return to New Zealand in time to see him before he passed away, but not before having to undergo two weeks hard quarantine in Christchurch. Ged died on Dec 8 and Stokes had little time to mourn before returning to the England set-up for a tough tour to India.
Yet those close to Stokes always felt his mental state was primarily wrapped up in the pain from his finger. He knew the first operation had not gone well and he became very down at not being able to do the things that had come so naturally to him.
He tried to lose himself in other projects — a Esports gaming business called 4Cast he had set up with Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer, which allows fans to play computer games such as Call of Duty with their sporting heroes — but all the while he was growing frustrated and worried about his finger and the pain it was causing.
With rehab not working, some of his team-mates and those within the England set up had written Stokes off for the Ashes, with some even suggesting he might not be playing until next summer.
A scan was ordered which showed up more scar tissue than expected. It is understood the ligament in the hand had become attached to some of that scar tissue which is why Stokes had such limited movement. A new operation was booked in with the same surgeon at a private hospital in Leeds on Oct 4. The ligament was freed from the scar tissue and screws removed.
Stokes reported feeling better as soon as the anesthetic wore off. That day he was able to clench his fist for the first time. His mood lifted quickly and two days later he emerged in public for the first time posting a picture on his Instagram account with his wife, Clare, at Seaham Hall country house in County Durham, surrounded by pumpkins at a Halloween display.
The only clue as to what had happened was a big plaster on his left index finger. The ECB later admitted in a statement that Stokes had been operated on for the second time and would “undergo an intensive period of rehabilitation for the next four weeks under the supervision of the ECB's medical team.”
A week later Stokes had a bat in hand and was hitting balls very gently in the nets at Durham. “Great to be back hitting balls” he posted as he built up his return knowing it would gain public attention.
At the end of last week he was back in business hitting balls properly in the nets, padded up and looking as if he was ready to play again. It was a remarkably quick turnaround. England were cognizant of the fact that he could just be going through a mental high after so many low weeks and wanted to be certain of his frame of mind before adding him to the squad.
Head coach Chris Silverwood spoke to Stokes at the end of last week and then again at the weekend to make sure he was okay. Stokes had another net and was happy with his finger. He told Silverwood: “I am ready, if you want me.”
Silverwood did not need a second invitation, and suddenly the whole complexion of the Ashes series had been turned on its head.