BY AAKASH KUMAR
New Delhi, May 18 (IANS) England’s journey to the elusive 50-over World Cup title in 2019 can be described as the perfect dream. Going in as favorites and finishing as champions. But if one brings in perspective and dwells into the past and the backlash that came with it, England winning the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup is one of the greatest “rags to riches” story in the gentlemans game. And who better than Ben Stokes to take fans back into flashback mode with his book “Ben Stokes On Fire”.
Rewinding the clock, the 2015 edition of the tournament played in Australia and New Zealand, saw England — the founders of the gentleman’s game — come up with a dismal performance as they crashed out in the group stage itself.
There was a lot of criticism for the team, from all quarters of the cricket fraternity, including the British media which believed that the team was only focusing on the longer format of the game and not really adapting with the change in times, especially the English and Wales Cricket Board. The criticism, however, made a big impact on the England cricket structure, which brought in a complete change in their way of approaching the game.
It is often pointed out by many of the current English cricketers that the preparation for the 2019 edition of the World Cup had started way back in 2015 when the team returned home to heavy criticism. And it’s absolutely true.
They adopted a new and much-more aggressive brand of cricket with the likes of Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Eoin Morgan and Ben Stokes forming an integral part of the new approach. They made sure they left behind the traditional way of playing 50-overs cricket. During the course of four years, they brought in a significant amount of improvement in their way of approaching the shorter format and entered the 2019 World Cup as the overwhelming favorites. And boy, didn’t they relish the tag.
In fact, both Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler had in interviews to IANS during the 2019 IPL said that they had done enough as a team to go into the tournament as one of the teams to watch out for.
They continued with the same approach of fearless cricket in the flagship ICC event and eventually on July 14 at the iconic Lord’s, they quenched the thirst of their maiden 50-over World Cup title. And the final was a perfect recipe for a Hollywood blockbuster. It had action, drama and a finish that could give any suspense thriller a run for its money. And one man who played a key role in the resurgence is Ben Stokes.
And in his book, the all-rounder has described in detail England’s journey to the World Cup trophy. He has vividly explained what went behind the scenes and the journey that ended with holding high the coveted trophy at the Lord’s balcony after beating New Zealand in the Super Over.
Interestingly, Stokes in his book also reveals how at one stage during his time with Rajasthan Royals in the 2019 IPL, he felt he would not be able to make it to the England World Cup squad after suffering from a hamstring injury.
“For a short period during my time with the Rajasthan Royals at the Indian Premier League in the spring of 2019, I feared that my World Cup might be over before it had begun. Bearing in mind that I was an England player in India expected to play every game – especially given the huge amount of money they had spent on me in the auction – I could not have received better treatment from Rajasthan,” writes Stokes.
It was from there on that the New Zealand-born all-rounder never looked behind and took his game to a whole new level and converted it into performances which played an integral part in Eoin Morgan walking up to the dias to pick the trophy that had eluded the Englishmen since the start of the World Cup in 1975.
Stokes was one of the chief architects of his team’s feat. He scored 465 runs in the 11 matches he played throughout the tournament, besides the seven wickets he picked. However, England’s journey to the title was not a bed of roses. After registering five consecutive wins in their first five round-robin matches, the hosts suffered a shocking defeat to Sri Lanka and went on to lose their next game against Australia. The hosts of the tournament were once again at the brink of making an exit.
Shoulders dropped and questions were being raised again by the English media if they would now be the new chokers having done so well in the lead-up to the event and this is what Stokes highlights in his book. How the team got together and while teams in the past have broken down under scrutiny, this one lifted itself and decided to go out and show why they were called favourites at the start of the showpiece event.
Stokes takes readers inside the dressing room and the emotions that come with being a sportsperson. While people only get to see what happens on the field, the emotions are sometimes carried on back to not just the dressing room, but also the breakfast table next morning.
“There was no room for manoeuvre now. Defeat to Australia had simplified the equation. To win the World Cup from here, we had to beat both India at Edgbaston and New Zealand at my Durham base of Chester- le- Street,” Stokes recalls in his book.
Former England captain Michael Vaughan, during the course of the tournament, had said that the team which would be able to defeat Virat Kohli-led India, would go on to win the title. And that’s what exactly happened.
In a do-or-die game on June 30 at Edgbaston, England first posted a huge total of 337/7 riding on a brilliant century from Jonny Bairstow. And then, they came out with a disciplined bowling performance to restrict the star-studded Indian batting line-up to 306/5 in their allotted 50 overs and win the match by 31 runs.
The Men in Blue, meanwhile, had to face a lot of criticism for their batting approach during the chase as despite having wickets in hand, they didn’t go for the kill in the end moments. Questions were even raised on M.S. Dhoni’s approach to the chase and if he had forgotten the art of finishing games.
Stokes in his book does talk about the approach of the Indians in that chase and how it was surprising to see them looking to keep wickets in the kitty and take the game to the backend.
Stokes, in fact, also speaks about how this might no longer be the smart way of approaching the game as the required run-rate starts piling up and it starts impacting those that come in at the fall of a wicket. But what surprised Stokes most was skipper Virat Kohli’s reaction in the post-match ceremony.
Kohli had criticised the small dimensions of the ground, something which didn’t please the England all-rounder.
“… it was weird to hear India captain Kohli whingeing about the size of the boundaries at the post-match presentation ceremony. I have never heard such a bizarre complaint after a match. It’s actually the worst complaint you could ever make,” recalls Stokes.
Moving forward, while India went on to lose to the Black Caps in the semi-finals, England outsmarted Australia in their last-four game. They were so filled with confidence that despite almost being out of contention of lifting the trophy at one point in the summit clash, they held onto their nerves in what could be easily described as a pressure-cooker situation and registered their names in the history books.
The final turned out to be one of the most thrilling contests in the history of cricket and England won the trophy by the slightest of margins against New Zealand on account of their superior boundary count.
“I never thought I would cry on a cricket field. Now I had done it two or even three times in the space of five minutes. I couldn’t have cared less, of course,” recalls Stokes as he goes down the memory lane to recapitulate what transpired on that glorious evening of July 14, 2019 at the Mecca of Cricket.
(Excerpted with permission from On Fire by Ben Stokes, published by Headline Books, and distributed in the Indian subcontinent by Hachette India)