Sunday July 14, 2019. Lord’s Cricket Ground, London. After a tournament that’s included monstrous wins over South Africa, India and Australia, England wither to 71-3 after 19.3 overs of the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup final. Their opponents, New Zealand, scored 241-8 off 50 overs. Average at best. But the combination of fragile batting from Jason Roy and Joe Root, and the Kiwis’ tight bowling and sharp tactics, has them well on top.
Then Ben Stokes comes in to bat.
And as so often happens when Ben Stokes comes in to bat, this quickly and forcefully led to an upturn in the fortunes of the England team via a series of extraordinary events.
Rather than thinking, 'Right, I can't get out now,’ I was thinking, ‘Right, what do I need to do now?’
Here are three of them:
- A 110-run partnership between Stokes and England’s second most exciting One Day International batsman, Jos Buttler.
- Stokes being caught in the 48th over with England needing 22 runs from nine balls to win, only for fielder Trent Boult to step on the boundary rope while holding the ball and therefore gift the batsman six runs.
- Stokes scoring another freak six in the final over when a throw from fielder Martin Guptill hit his bat and went to the boundary as he was diving to get back into his crease.
For Stokes, looking back on the final a year later, his innings was all about trying to, “Control the controllable,” because, “There are so many things in cricket you can’t control so there’s no point worrying about them.” It was also all about having a positive mindset. So when Buttler got out and England were 196 for 5, “Rather than thinking, 'Right, I can't get out now,’ I was thinking, ‘Right, what do I need to do now?’ and there’s a big difference between those that I think is crucial.”
When he hit the ball to Boult he, "knew straight away that I hadn’t got it, so you’re literally just praying that something goes wrong for them and it all plays out for you.”
And with that freak six, well: “When something like that happens you know it’s just meant to be,” he says. “It was such an unfortunate event. You could do that 100 times over and it would never happen again.”
England finish on 241 all out, and it was Stokes’s extraordinary 84 not out, full of supreme cricketing intelligence and game awareness, that got them there. The match was tied, so it went to a Super Over. Both teams had six balls to score as many runs as they could. Most runs wins. Simple.
I was absolutely exhausted after that last over
First up are Stokes and Buttler for England. “I was absolutely exhausted after that last over,” says Stokes. “Then once I got told I was going back out for the Super Over I got another lift and I managed to stay switched on to what needed to be done. When I bat there’s a bubble around me and nothing gets in. You can’t think of anything else. I was focussed on what I had to do to win the game.
“I’ve watched the final back quite a few times and the camera’s on me a lot, especially that last half an hour. I felt like I was very calm and very assured out in the middle but, if you actually look at me, I was bit different to how I would normally be. Normally my face is just blank, whereas in that situation I was quite expressive with my emotions. I guess it’s just the whole occasion, and that’s how I naturally chose to express how I was feeling at the time.”
This raw emotion inspired Stokes and Buttler to score 15 runs off the Super Over. “When Jos hit that last ball for four I honestly hand on heart thought we’d won the World Cup,” he says. “I was like, ‘There’s no way they can score 16 off Jofra’”.
Fast bowler Jofra Archer, England’s newest superstar, was given the job of stopping New Zealand scoring the runs they needed to win. Time for Ben Stokes to step up yet again.
Three years ago, in the 2016 ICC World Twenty20 final, Stokes was in a similar position to the one Archer now found himself in. West Indies needed 19 runs to win off the final over, and Stokes was tasked with stopping them, bowling to Carlos Braithwaite.
“I was pretty confident,” he says. “I had bowled the last over a few times during the tournament. I knew from the 17th over of the game that it would probably be me again, because of the way that innings had gone and the need to use the bowlers up. When you realise this, you start wondering how many runs you’ll have to defend. Is it going to be 10, 15, 20? Your mind starts to wander. Mine definitely did. That’s my own fault for thinking about it; there’s no point thinking about things that are out of your control.
The first two balls were hit for six. I was thinking, ‘We can still win this'
“The first two balls were hit for six. I was thinking, ‘We can still win this, I just need to get the next ones right.’ Unfortunately, I didn’t get anything right. The pressure after each ball became bigger and bigger. But you practise for these situations, so although the pressure was mounting I wasn’t thinking, ‘Why did you do that?’ It just didn’t happen. Sometimes people don’t quite get that; you’re trying to bowl a ball at 90mph and the margin for error is small. I just couldn’t execute what I wanted to do. As it turned out, every ball I bowled went for six, and we lost the match. When the last one was hit, there was a lot of devastation and disappointment.”
I said to Jofra, ‘Whatever happens it’s not going to define your career’
But he was able to use this experience in 2016 to influence the events of 2019. “I ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ over whether I should say something to Jofra before the Super Over,” he says. “In the end I thought it would mean more coming from me than anybody else, because I’ve been in that situation, so I said to him, ‘Whatever happens it’s not going to define your career.’ He’s a young lad and he’s about to bowl a Super Over in a World Cup final. “I didn’t say something because I wished someone had given me that advice in 2016. I don’t, and watching Jofra prepare I was very confident in him. But I didn’t let my over against the West Indies define me, either. Jofra just looked at me and nodded his head.”
His first ball is a wide. But from then he keeps things as aggressive as he can and New Zealand wind up needing two runs from the last ball. “That final ball…,” says Stokes. “You’re just praying that everything goes right. You’re praying Jofra delivers the perfect ball, you’re praying Jason Roy picks it up and throws it to Jos Buttler, and you’re praying he catches it and takes the bails off without fumbling it. That all happened and we won the World Cup, one of the greatest games ever. Me and Jofra didn’t discuss it then or afterwards. But he defended the total, which will go a long way for his career because everyone will remember it.”
When Stokes himself failed to defend the total in 2016 it was “a tough thing to take,” he says. “In moments like that you feel like it’s all your fault. You know that everybody’s attention is going to be on you while it’s happening, immediately afterwards, in a week’s time, in two weeks’ time. All of that goes through your head. It’s not a very good place to be for the first 15–20 minutes. I didn’t mean to bowl the ball and say, ‘Here you go, right where you want it.’ I just wasn’t able to execute what I wanted to do on that evening. A lot of people have said, ‘Why didn’t you do this or that?” Hindsight’s a great thing. I knew what I wanted to do before every delivery, unfortunately I just couldn’t execute it on that night. If I’d executed what I wanted to execute – just like I had done a few times before that final – we would have won the World Cup. If I’d bowled the six yorkers I wanted to bowl we would have won.”
You either let something like the 2016 World Cup final set you back, or you accept it and use it as a motivation to get better
As with any team on the path to greatness, they dealt with this setback with grace. “There’s no blame from other players. None of that. It’s a team sport. That’s where being part of a team is the best thing; we win as a team and we lose as a team. People are going to have good days and bad days and if you lose a game it’s never down to an individual moment by a player. The mood quickly changed to realising that yes, we’d lost, but we’d also just played the World Cup final. It went from us all being down in the dumps to a bit happier and more optimistic, while still being disappointed. We wanted to get over defeat and then try to celebrate the success we’d had throughout the whole tournament.”
That’s the guy who lost the World Cup
But that doesn’t mean Stokes didn’t experience a period of reflection. “Afterwards, you do go through that stage of walking down the street imagining everyone’s looking at you thinking, ‘That’s the guy who lost the World Cup.’ People’s careers are full of ups and downs – it’s never going to be a smooth road. Losing a game is a terrible feeling. But at the end of the day, we’ve lost a game of cricket. It’s sport. We’ll still be alive in the morning. We’ve always got another game to turn things around. Disappointing times in your career shape you and make you into the player you are. You either let something like the 2016 World Cup final hold you down and set you back, or you accept it for what it is and use it as a motivation to get better and keep trying to improve. I really feel that’s what I was able to do.”
Now England are World Champions, and Ben Stokes one of the greatest cricketers on the planet. And if Stokes’ performances in 2019’s Test series against Australia and South Africa are anything to go by, including his greatest-innings-of-all-time 135 not out in an Ashes test at Headingley, he still hasn’t achieved everything he wants to achieve.
“I want to beat India in India, and win the Ashes in Australia,” he says. If anyone can inspire England to such greatness, it’s Ben Stokes.