Ben Stokes and World Cup finals. Put them together and you always get a storyline.
It was a gut-wrenching tale for Stokes in Kolkata six years ago when Carlos Brathwaite pounded him for four successive sixes to win the T20 World Cup for West Indies and leave the England man in tears.
But his last two appearances in World Cup finals, at Lord’s in 2019 and now Melbourne on Sunday night, have featured glorious endings, ones that he has helped script
Three years ago, in the 50-over final, he made the unbeaten 84 that took the game against New Zealand to a Super Over and then eight of the 15 runs that Jofra Archer just about managed to defend.
This weekend, he guided England to a victory target of 138 against Pakistan with 52 not out from 49 balls in the T20 final. It was Stokes’ first T20I half-century in his 36th innings. What a time to get it.
England are now dual white-ball world champions, the first men’s side in history to hold both titles simultaneously, and their leading man for both triumphs was undoubtedly Stokes.
England must be in the conversation for the greatest white-ball side of all time and Stokes, according to white-ball skipper Jos Buttler, is in the chat for England’s greatest-ever player.
When you consider his Test match accomplishments – that Ashes century at Headingley in 2019, that spell against South Africa in Cape Town in early 2020 and then spearheading his country’s red-ball revival as captain this summer, it is incredibly difficult to argue with Buttler’s suggestion.
Buttler, speaking in the afterglow of his side’s five-wicket victory, said to reporters: “We’re immensely lucky to have him, he’s one of the great players of English cricket and can be in the conversation (to be regarded as England’s greatest cricketer ever).
“He always stands up in the biggest moments. He can take a lot of pressure on his shoulders and perform. With him in the middle, you know you’ve got a good chance. He’s a true match-winner who’s been there in those scenarios time and time again. He has a lot of know-how.
“It certainly wasn’t his most fluent innings, he probably didn’t time the ball as well as he can, but we knew he was never going to go down without a fight. He was going to stand up, be there at the end.”
A lot will be made of this being a redemption story for Stokes from 2016, the man smashed for the match-winning runs back then scoring them this time around.
The dejection-to-delight narrative is certainly hard to ignore and one that was not lost on Buttler in his press conference. “He’s obviously never let that 2016 final push him back. You think of the things he’s gone on to achieve in his career since then, it’s just amazing,” he said.
But the focus should also be on how Stokes seems to find an extra gear in big moments. When the stakes are high and the pressure is on, he stars where others shrivel. Through a combination of skill, strength, an unbridled will to win and a mind that can think clearly in fuzzy situations, Stokes, to use former England white-ball captain Eoin Morgan’s word, just has the “minerals.”
Morgan told Sky Sports Cricket: “You look back at the recent history of English cricket and in some of the most successful moments, he is a constant fixture.”
Current white-ball head coach Matthew Mott added: “I think he copped a bit of flak coming into this tournament, but he’s a match-winner in every format. I had complete faith in the way he would go about things. He steadied the ship nicely.”
Mott is right. There was a bit of chat about Stokes’ place in the side ahead of the World Cup. He hadn’t played a T20 international since March 2021 before returning for the pre-tournament bilateral series against hosts Australia and across his first seven innings this winter – three in that series and four in the World Cup – he only reached double figures twice. Did England need him? Yes, they needed him.
They needed him to dig them out of a hole against Sri Lanka on a used surface in Sydney, with his 42 not out off 36 balls taking them into the semi-finals after a middle-order collapse, and they needed him to, as Mott said, “steady the ship” after losing three powerplay wickets against Pakistan in the final at the MCG.
Stokes, with the help of Harry Brook, ensured a potentially-dicey 45-3 in the sixth over became a more serene 84-3 in the 13th over. Then, with an assist from Moeen Ali, he ensured a potentially-tricky requirement of 38 from 26 balls was whittled down to 12 off 18.
Job virtually done.
The way Stokes plots his way through an innings in these games is remarkable and when he spots the door is slightly ajar, he smashes it open. His opening against Pakistan was when Shaheen Shah Afridi pulled up after one ball of the 16th over with an injury he had aggravated catching Brook.
On came off-spinner Iftikhar Ahmed and here came Stokes, drumming the penultimate ball of the over through the covers for four and then launching the final one over long-off for six. Moeen hit three of the next six balls to the fence to maintain England’s match-winning momentum.
Moeen could not see the victory through, bowled by Mohammad Wasim at the start of the 19th over, but Stokes could, clipping away the decisive single at the end of the same over. For the third time in six years, Stokes was there at the end of a World Cup final. For the second time in three, he was there with a beaming smile across his face.
England’s greatest of all time? Perhaps. England’s greatest in World Cup finals? Undoubtedly. And after what went down in 2016, that is some redemption story for a man England are, as Buttler put it, “immensely lucky to have”.