• Bertie Moores

Ben Stokes - The Sports Personality of the Year



When a sports star appears on Good Morning Britain for inspiring two middle-aged men to huff around their local ParkRun in nothing but their pants and flip-flops, you’re acutely aware that you’re watching someone who’s made a cultural impact on the nation.


Ignoring the ‘And Finally…’ nature of the news story, this kind of sporting appreciation is normally reserved for global figures. Think Usain Bolt, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Jamie Vardy. Stokes has planted his flag in the national consciousness like no sportsman since perhaps a pre-controversy Bradley Wiggins did so in the summer of 2012.


Even from the start it seemed written in the stars to be the year of Ben Stokes. In England’s first World Cup game we saw glimmers of what was to come with his bedazzling catch against South Africa. 


It was a stand-out moment, not only because of the outrageous skill and athleticism he showed to pull off the one-handed take, but because how widely and quickly the video-clip travelled on social media. It was the perfect start to a tournament on which England had so much resting.



And that was just the start.


His performances throughout England’s often sticky path through the tournament time and time again proved important. He was the bedrock of England’s batting, consistently delivering performances with the bat as well as with the ball when it mattered most. A supremely talented and well-oiled side when in their groove, England have remained vulnerable to collapse sometimes in the slightest wind. Amidst loose shots, temperament failings and wickets crumbling, Stokes would then step in. 


Calmness personified, he played cricket in the form most suitable for the moment. When his teammates were flailing he anchored the side, holding his wicket precious. When the time came for fireworks he didn’t even need to light a fuse. He didn’t just play cricket, he also played the moment. When England needed an innings, Stokes provided. In defeats against Sri Lanka and Australia he was an island of calm as the rest of the batting order imploded. His scores in these matches of 82 out of 212 runs and 89 out of 221 showed a player of grit and solidity which we’d never been privy to. The fact that four of his five World Cup half centuries came against ‘the big boys' - South Africa, New Zealand, India, and Australia - is testament to his cricketing intelligence. When the going got tough it was Stokes who rolled up his sleeves and did it himself. Sometimes that wasn’t quite enough, but England fans could sense match-winner behaviour, and with him in the side the impossible was always one player away.  


Come the final, England were choking. Arguably the most talented, exciting and explosive one-day side ever was sinking under the weight of pressure and expectation. Twenty overs in, England were 71-3 and New Zealand’s seemingly paltry 241 was way off. England had been here before and disintegrated but before they didn’t have Ben Stokes. Stokes’ innings-saving 84 has gone down in not just cricket, but national, folklore. The patient blocks, turning the screw slowly to within touching distance. Then came the power, the deadeye nerve to smash England level and walk straight back out to orchestrate the Super Over victory. 

 

An over that truly gripped the nation – free to air for millions. People almost forget that he’d been in for over two and half hours before that, steering his team towards their fate.


His abilities, temperament, and determination continued into the second act: The Ashes. The glue which held together the thinnest frame of a batting line-up England have had in living memory. His unbeaten century chasing victory in a rain-affected draw at Lord’s was supreme, yet it is his single-handed heroics merely a week later which will define this as the Summer of Stokes. An innings which perhaps will live longer in the memory than any in cricket. Where Botham reigned, now Ben Stokes rules. 135 runs that will live on.


When all hope was lost, his magical performance ignited hope in an England team who were comprehensively outplayed by Steve Smith throughout the summer. With the unlikeliest of foils in the form of Jack Leach, Stokes’ bruising dismantling of an outstanding Australian attack brought England perhaps the greatest Test comeback of all time.


Sportspeople who imprint themselves on the nation’s hearts come few and far between, and result from of a tangled confluence of circumstances. Stokes’ heroics against New Zealand were there for the whole country to see for the first time in a generation. Equally, those ‘overthrows’, Boult's boundary tread, that missed Lyon review. Some events just seemed to give his quests an unstoppable deterministic aura. These things come together to impress onto our collective consciousness.



Off the pitch, Stokes comes across as reserved and shy, his media interviews often borderline boring. Compare him to the energetic and engaging - now Top Gear host - Freddie Flintoff. Flintoff more than anyone is his spiritual companion when it comes to cricketers who’ve captured the English public imagination. But part of Stokes’ charm comes from this reservation, and indeed determination, to get on, plug away and leave his talking on the field. Personality and narrative does not always need bravado.


Indeed, it’s been a rollercoaster ride from hero to zero to global phenomenon. After being found not guilty for affray during a night out in Bristol, Stokes has reclaimed and fashioned his own image which had been caught in the tabloids’ crossfire. Two years ago he was vilified by the red tops, now he is glorified by the whole country. Include his own personal battles with The Sun’s gutter journalism this summer, he is someone who is relatable on a human level. With the freezing cold 5k, Stokes publicly praised the two men from Nottinghamshire who completed the ‘pantrun’ and personally donated more than the cost of his own wedding to Alzheimer’s Research UK. Although now of considerable wealth, the act further exemplified that reserved likeability of the man. 


Now, as the BBC’s Sports Personality of The Year looms, Stokes is well and truly a national icon. With England’s rugby union side slipping away in the World Cup Final, social media cried out for Ben Stokes to come and rescue the weathered side. In recent years, SPOTY has seemingly more been about the scale of the achievement rather than the impact that the sportsperson has had through their achievements. The ‘sports personality’ nature of the award seems to have been slightly replaced by ‘sportsperson’. The five others nominated are in their own ways supremely deserving of the accolade. Be it Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s world triumph after years of injury and near misses, or Lewis Hamilton moving into pole position to overtake Michael Schumacher as F1’s greatest driver. 


Yet, in the category of Sports Personality, surely Stokes cannot be matched. As a nation of sports-watchers, we watch for the drama and the narrative and he provided that in truckfulls. In Stokes’ particular case, a combination of impossibility, occasion, style, mindset, inspiration, narrative and platform came together to build events which over time will continue to shine bright for the country and his sport. Indeed, if strangers are conducting a naked run in your name in December, it’s fairly clear you’ve had a lasting impact. And if that doesn’t win Stokes SPOTY, then what will?

 

Edward Pinches and Bertie Moores

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