It was not the first time that Ben Stokes had embodied England’s heart and soul on a cricket field, their willingness to keep the fight going with the defeat looming. He had done so most famously in Headingley, but a lesser-known example of the man’s fire and desire came earlier this year in Ahmedabad.
Having dismissed England for 205 on a decent batting surface in the fourth Test, the Indians were expected to dominate their way through Day 2 and take the game completely away from the tourists. But Stokes, who had not had any major impact on the series till then, had other ideas.
The 30-year-old ran in like a man possessed and delivered an excellent spell on a surface hardly offering anything to the fast-bowlers. Stokes dismissed two of the home team’s best in Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma during his memorable burst before lunch, doing the skipper with an alarming bouncer before taking the in-form opener with the one that jagged back in sharply.
For a while, that spell seems to have inspired an England recovery, leaving India vulnerably placed at 121/5, before the ever-exciting Rishabh Pant grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and tilted it back in the home team’s favour. Lacking good enough bowling depth for the conditions, England had to ultimately bow down to the Indians and suffered another chastening defeat.
But that one unforgettable hour of play, where he raised England’s hopes when it all seemed doomed, reflected brightly on Ben Stokes, who exhibited not just an array of skills with the ball but also his ambition and courage.
That champion spirit has come to the fore now as well when he has been brave enough to admit publicly that he has been fighting an inner battle and needs an indefinite break to resolve a mental health problem. Stokes “has withdrawn from the Test series India starting next week to prioritise his mental wellbeing and to rest his left index finger, which has not fully healed since his return to competitive cricket earlier this month,” the ECB announced on Friday (July 30).
Despite growing awareness, it remains taboo in our insensitive world for the athletes to open up on the anxiety and depression they may be dealing with. Stokes’ honest acceptance and announcement help denounce those prohibitions and repulsions that have historically destroyed many promising sporting careers.
ECB deserves credit for Ben Stokes’ honest admission
The cricketing ecosystem, which for so long ignored mental health as a serious concern despite timely warnings, is now finally walking up to the reality a lot better, thanks inadvertently to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since cricket’s resumption last year after a three-month global shutdown, implementation of stringent health safety protocols have taken their toll.
The painstaking quarantine and testing norms and limited interactions with the world outside throughout the duration of long, busy all-format tours have led to the coining of ‘bubble fatigue’ as a term. Already having to navigate through a physically and mentally taxing cricket calendar, players have seen their troubles accentuate by the necessary but certainly wearying health safety regulations.
It is no different for Ben Stokes, who, although sidelined from on-field action for the better part of last three months due to his finger injury, has still been one of the most over-worked England cricketers since the time cricket resumed the previous summer, shifting from one bubble to the other at home and also overseas.
In-between, Stokes had to deal with a personal tragedy as well, losing his father – Ged Stokes, the former New Zealand rugby player – to brain cancer late last year. It was a huge blow to the 30-year-old, who had opted out of the later part of the English summer and skipped the early portion of the IPL 2020 to be with his parents in Christchurch. Stokes was only just getting back to on-field duties for England when he learnt of his father’s untimely passing.
Stokes’ brave admission is also a tribute to ECB’s player-friendly rest and rotation policy. Wary of their cricketers having to deal with the bubble fatigue within an already demanding schedule, the England board has focused a lot on managing their workloads and keeping them physically and mentally fresh for all forms of the game.
“Ben has shown tremendous courage to open up about his feelings and wellbeing,” Ashley Giles, the England men’s director of cricket, said. “Ben will be given as long as he needs, and we look forward to seeing him playing cricket for England in the future.”
Giles’ words indicated a genuine appreciation for Stokes and a growing sense of conviction within the English camp regarding their ways of dealing with the pandemic, keeping the excessive wear out among their players at bay.
“Our primary focus has always been and will continue to be the mental health and welfare of all of our people,” Giles said. “The demands on our athletes to prepare and play elite sport are relentless in a typical environment, but the ongoing pandemic has acutely compounded this.”
“Spending significant amounts of time away from family, with minimal freedoms, is extremely challenging. The cumulative effect of operating almost continuously in these environments over the last 16 months has had a major impact on everyone’s wellbeing.”
The ECB faced heavy criticism for the policy earlier this year when England lost series in all three formats to India, but they must also be given credit for creating an environment where players aren’t pushed to the extremes and can freely speak up and take breaks when they desperately need them. Other cricket boards should follow suit.