It is not very often that a side has such an issue that Rajasthan are facing in the shortest format - they have a plethora of batsmen who could leave a deep-mark on the opposition on their own night. After Stokes’ return, the confusion that turned into a conundrum has now turned into a masterstroke.
129 matches, 2547 runs at an average of 25.72 and a strike-rate of 135.26 - now when you read this, you would probably think of a fringe player in the poorest of leagues across the world. But this is Ben Stokes and he can’t really be judged based on his numbers. If there is one man that has defined, redefined this in World cricket, it is the southpaw, who has built a career out of moments and not statistics. Now you have heard this story before, excellently, in the form of another southpaw Yuvraj Singh, yet he is hailed as a real T20 all-rounder in modern cricket.
What really defines Yuvraj Singh the all-rounder? His batting, his bowling or his fielding? The answer would be puzzling - none. It is the moments, be it his six-sixes against England or be it his incredible bowling display in the Indian outfit. A player of his calibre was picked and still admittedly played in the 2014 World T20 despite him being in poor form, trusting on that factor that these moments could spark off, which has defined his career. When the odds are stacked against him and his entire world, Ben Stokes emerges out of it.
When you put that into context, Stokes’ start to the season will massively find an upgrade, in terms of the value it has on offer. With the English all-rounder, there is either a match-winning innings or a match-losing one, be it with the bat or the ball, but one thing remains the same, you can’t really keep him away from the game. He’s there, constantly, nagging at one end or the other, in the field, in the ears of the opposition or even in the bowling attack. Let’s go back to where this value of Stokes actually came from in the Indian Premier League.
The year is 2017, a wry smile on Stephen Fleming’s face, Rising Pune Supergiant have just captured a big fish in the form of Ben Stokes. Preceding the Auction, Stokes had scored 72 runs in eight innings in the English outfit, at an average of 10.28, but that didn’t halt Pune from spending Rs 15.5 crore for the all-rounder. The end result - 316 runs from 221 balls, at an average of 31.6 and strike-rate of 143, with just 29% dot-balls. On top of that, 12 wickets with the ball. That was the all-rounder in simple words - you really can’t define what he does. An IPL MVP that season, as Pune fell narrowly short of Mumbai’s target by one run.
That’s what made Rajasthan Royals hope so much that he would show them the glimpse of magic. But it had been two seasons since he was bought, with no half-centuries or centuries to his name with his bowling, well, below-par. So when Stokes was reportedly out for the first half of the tournament, there wasn’t much of a concern for the Royals outfit, who had plenty of options at their disposal.
So before the game against Mumbai, he had just got 110 runs from 103 balls and Shane Warne, who is an integral part of the Royals outfit, wanted the all-rounder at No.4. Now that’s where the analytics come into play.
The best of Stokes and the worst of Stokes combined into one form, this season scores only 6.07 runs in his first ten balls, which shows how rusty he is as a batsman at the moment and even in the format. He isn’t your Buttler and isn’t your Kohli either but that’s what separates him knowing that the frailties are too obvious, especially given that he is notoriously a bad-starter at a terrible pace.
On the other hand, there is Buttler, who scores 7.83 runs in the same ten deliveries, which is one of the reasons that his demotion to the middle-order makes sense and he isn’t the tuk-tuk kind of a player; more of the sixes and the mixes. So as much as a lot people questioned the move in the first place, based on the presumptions from his RPS days, he really shouldn’t have opened in any other season barring this.
Immediately, as one thinks more and more about it, he came out with a similar intent against Mumbai Indians. But his slow start got converted into a steady one and in the end, it was nothing short of a fitting innings from the man in pink. By the end of the innings, his face too became pink as he pointed the innings to his dad. He backed away, came down the track, shuffled and shimmed - in short, did it all possible to disturb the bowler’s momentum, which was exactly what happened.
Once he got the middle of his bat, there was no looking back, never and it made everyone eat their words, none really spared. The leg-spinners, the left-arm orthodox spinner and even Jasprit Bumrah, none had a chance once the southpaw put a price on his wicket. Longer boundaries didn’t matter, shorter boundaries didn’t count and bowler’s reputation too wasn’t given a damn.
"It was sort of bittersweet, to be honest," Stokes said at the post-match presentation.
Bitter because he took six innings before he got himself settled and sweet because this is what dreams are made of - an innings against one of the best bowling units in the tournament. For a man who had little to no training after reaching New Zealand to score a century against the toughest of the pace attack, that is what Stokes is made of - moments that turn ordinary into extraordinary and extraordinary into an out of world one.
217 runs in just 163 deliveries at an average of 43.40, and a strike-rate of 133.12, is the result of that innings, at the top of the order, where, before this year, Stokes never ever dreamt of playing and Rajasthan didn’t in equal measures dare of thinking. Even in an overcrowded top-order that resembled some of the local trains in Mumbai, the left-hander’s moment or moments of genius is what turned everything back in his favour.
“So I came into this game with a bit more confidence than the other games. It was nice to spend some time out in the middle and finish the game off," and come to 2021, you will find the all-rounder back in a spot where he calls home, the middle-order, as the experiment would and could only work wonders in 2020, with very less game-time before the event for all the players. This year, this innings was magical for Stokes because he came, he saw but in equal measures, none believed and he conquered, which is what Stokes’ career is made of, making the whole world stand in unison to applaud a 60-ball 107.