If there is one thing the British public love more than an underdog story, it is a tale of redemption. We’ve always loved our nonconformist sportsmen in this country, from Paul Gascoigne to Tyson Fury, these are the men who bring colour and personality to the sports we love. Ben Stokes, having just been named Wisden's leading cricketer in the world for the second year in a row, certainly fits that billing and this latest award has seen him go from an ill-disciplined talent, to the greatest cricketer in the world.
Let’s not forget his regular misdemeanors as a youngster. Despite all his talent, he couldn’t get things right off the pitch. At 22, he was sent home from a Lions tour of Australia for late-night drinking. By 2016, a judge warned him he could face jail time if he committed another driving offence, having been caught speeding four times.
A year later he was admonished for having used ‘obscene, offensive or insulting’ language against the West Indies while in 2018 he was found not guilty of affray after punching a man outside a Bristol nightclub - which turned out to be him defending a couple from homophobic abuse.
Of course, there were incredible performances and maturity on the pitch that had made him the prime candidate to become England’s Test vice-captain under Joe Root. His incredible 258 in just 198 balls v South Africa broke records and his bowling at Trent Bridge in 2015 regained the Ashes for an England side in desperate need of a new hero. But those off-the-field incidents just kept on blemishing the name of England’s best all-rounder and most naturally talented player.
After the incident in Bristol was settled, Stokes was keen to focus on his cricket and it seems since then he has matured as a person, allowing him to fulfill his potential on the field. The 2019 World Cup was almost a coming of age ceremony for Stokes, as he dragged England to glory.
His display against New Zealand in the final was nothing short of sensational as in the last over of the game, when England looked like they would come up short, he hit two sixes to force a super over. Then, alongside Jos Buttler, he batted in the super over as the hosts won the World Cup in the famous words of Ian Smith ‘by the barest of margins’.
If that display wrote his name permanently in English cricket folklore then what he did at Headingley in the Ashes made him a world superstar. It was without a doubt, the greatest Test match innings of all time, as Stokes chased down an impossible total, single-handedly. With the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders, Stokes hit one six, then another. Headingley began to believe as Jack Leach defended resolutely, keeping Stokes on strike whenever he could.
These are the scenarios where the 29-year-old thrives, when it is him up against the world. 11 fours and eight sixes made up his unbeaten 135 in what was one of the most unlikely wins in Test history. As he hit the winning four, Stokes roared, and the adoring crowd roared right back at him. Scenes of utter jubilation in the crowd were all down to one man and as the underdog against the odds, just how the Brits like it, the man in the middle had somehow pulled it off.
Having disappointedly been ruled out of the IPL season with a broken finger, England will need their talisman back to his best for the return Test series against India in August. As for the Ashes in December, well there is only one man who will be the game changer for Root’s side Down Under.
Ben Stokes has evidently matured into England's imperfect sporting icon. After putting his off-the-field issues behind him, he has now won the hearts of the nation and having already made history, this year he could put himself amongst the all-time greats.