IPL 2020: Ben Stokes ends frustration with a return to his box office best

Three and half years after his first IPL century, Stokes serves a reminder why he was made for cricket's showiest competition

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When Rising Pune Supergiant prepared for their second and final season as an IPL side by lavishing more than $2 million on Ben Stokes, it felt like money well spent.

Supremely talented, storied, and controversial, Stokes had always been box-office. He was made for cricket’s showiest competition.

He repaid the outlay in spades, too. Before they signed off for good, Pune went to the final, and might have won that, too, were it not for the last-over canniness of serial winners Mumbai Indians.

Stokes had to make do with a runner up medal, but was still named the player of his debut season in the IPL.

It might be a stretch to say Pune had been a one-man team that campaign, but he certainly did more than his fair share.

Most memorably, he scored a century after coming in at 10 for three in a run chase against Gujarat Lions.

It was typical Stokes, triumphing in adversity. Before the game, he had had a fitness test on a shoulder injury. He hobbled through the latter half of his innings with cramp. Yet he still emerged as the hero.

As the 20 guard dogs at the Pune stadium were put into their kennels late that night, Steve Smith sat down and extolled Stokes’ virtues.

“I said before the auction to the guys, ‘Do what you have to to get him’,” Smith said.

“All-rounders are so valuable in T20 cricket. He bats, bowls and fields well, so he is a perfect fit for our team.”

That was Stokes’ first T20 century. It has taken him three and a half years to make another.

Smith was still his captain. He was still playing a kit that carried a flash of pink. But the backdrop is vastly different, now.

Stokes became the first player to score centuries in two successful run-chases in the IPL, with his pugnacious effort against Mumbai in Abu Dhabi on Sunday night.

He termed it “bittersweet”, and said he had been frustrated as to why it had taken him so long to make a contribution of note in the tournament.

In his first five innings since his late arrival from compassionate leave in New Zealand he had made 110 runs from 103 balls, without hitting a six.

There are significant mitigating factors – a lack of any semblance of practice at all since the start of August being just one – but knives were being sharpened.

Consider Sanjay Manjrekar’s take on ESPNcricinfo last week, when weighing the merits of Stokes’ elevation to the top of the batting order for Rajasthan.

The former India batsman said the franchise were affording “too much VIP treatment” to the England all-rounder.

“They are looking at Ben Stokes as Ben Stokes this massive star of last year and the past couple of years,” Manjrekar said.

“It is like Ben Stokes is a god who has descended into India and is playing for Rajasthan Royals. I think they have to be more realistic about Ben Stokes and look at his performances.

“When he has played the IPL, there has actually only been one season where he really did well.

"Apart from that, he has mostly had average performances, not just through a period of a couple of matches, but through a long phase.

“To give that kind of treatment and platform to somebody because they have this stature, which is mostly at the international level, not at the IPL level.

“Somebody [Jos Buttler, who was moved down to the middle order] who has delivered magnificently at the IPL level has to compromise for Ben Stokes.”

Statistics support the point. Stokes’ returns in two-and-a-half seasons since his headlining arrival with Pune have been meagre.

In that great season of 2017, his combined strike-rate and average with the bat was 174.58.

In the seasons that followed – after joining Rajasthan – the tally dropped to 138.03, and then 144.74.

Yet his franchise retained faith, and why wouldn’t they? With Stokes, there is always the feeling that inspiration will outweigh statistics at the right time.

Remember, Stokes did not even make England's 2015 World Cup squad. Four years later, he was man of the match in the final as they won that title for the first time.

“Outside noise can affect people in different ways,” Stokes said in a conversation with Sanju Samson, his partner in the match-winning stand against Mumbai.

“When I was younger, it affected me, and took me a while to understand that outside noise isn’t what matters.

“It is about what is within the team, and the people who have an influence on you at a certain time in your career.

“I have had backing from everybody at this franchise for the past three years. I know that I haven’t delivered on the expectations of that.

“But having the backing of the people that matter in this franchise is really the thing that I pride everything on.

“It was good to return a little bit of faith tonight.”