Stokes' stock rises after living up to IPL hype
Ben Stokes began the IPL as the most expensive player and he ended it being hailed as the most valuable one. A satisfying escapade therefore, apart from one small detail: he missed the final and his team, Rising Pune Supergiant, lost the match by a single run.
Even when you are fast becoming one of the most sought-after allrounders in world cricket, life does not always go according to plan. When you have disappeared for four successive sixes in the last over of a World T20 final, as Stokes did when Carlos Brathwaite laid about him in Kolkata in 2016, you become inured to a disappointment or two.
Stokes is now back in the England fold, preparing for an ODI against South Africa at Headingley on Wednesday - one which, it has to be said, has crept up without much attention. While the razzamatazz of the IPL is with us, little else gets a look in.
If Stokes himself has flicked his mental switch (as the top players must do these days, switching with barely a second thought from club to country, changing formats, crossing time zones), his absence from the final does invite the question when it comes to their international summer how much England can hold the line.
Now the presence of England players in the IPL has been legitimised, with England's director of cricket, Andrew Strauss, openly encouraging participation, it will be a natural consequence for IPL franchises to lobby for the likes of Stokes to remain for the whole tournament.
In football, for good or ill, club commitments became superior to those of the national side many years ago. In cricket, England still hold sway, but the slippage is apparent.
That the IPL will slim down to occupy a more modest place in a saner cricketing calendar seems to be a naïve hope. England's international fixtures in May are bound to become a sticking point, especially given that Jos Buttler, another England T20 player with something approaching superstar status, also missed the final. Chris Woakes, less celebrated but valued nonetheless, also left Kolkata at the end of the league stages.
Buttler's Instagram account showed him leaping around, dressed only in a towel, as Mumbai prevented a boundary from the last ball to take the trophy. "I kept my clothes on," said Stokes wryly. You got the impression that he meant that would have been the case, win or lose.
He found the final hard to watch, but then he does not watch any cricket easily. "Whether it is watching Durham, England, or Pune, I want them to win," he said. "Being a bad watcher made it worse. But there wasn't a moment when I was thinking 'I wish I was out there' because, who knows, I might have bowled two overs for 40 and got a duck, so who knows?'"
Stokes was philosophical about his absence. "Before the tournament started it was made clear that me, Woakesy and Jos, were available for the 14 groups games and then, any further on than that, if either of the teams got through the finals we weren't available for that. So all three teams were aware of that and we were aware of that as players as well."
But when a franchise has paid $2.16m for your services, it does tend to want the maximum for its money. Stephen Fleming, Pune's coach, suggested: "From his point of view, he would have loved the situation. He is a big-game player."
Predictably, there has been fiercer criticism from Kevin Pietersen, a long-time advocate of T20 worldwide, and someone who rarely foregoes an opportunity to be the voice of opposition to all things ECB.
The fact that Stokes' absence was justified by an England pre-season training camp in Spain did not go down well with Pietersen, who exploded on Twitter that it was "absolutely pathetic" that Stokes and Buttler "have to go and drink a few beers in Spain instead of playing in an IPL final".
That led to Stokes providing an Instagram video of a gymnasium session entitled "beers in Spain".
"I think there was a lot of criticism about that purely because it was in Spain," he said. "If we'd done something like that in England, I don't think there would have been a bean said at all.
"The reasons for that were to get together as a team and not get disturbed by anything or anyone around us. We did a lot of fitness work, fielding work and a lot of team bonding stuff, whether that be golf in the morning, or a quiz at night time. But I think the whole thing got blown up because it was in Spain and obviously you associate Spain with sunshine, beer, parties and not hard work. But we did a lot of hard work."
England's double-think, though, is already apparent. Players like Stokes - an all-action player who is perpetually involved with bat, ball or in the field - have been allowed to fit the IPL into a heavy schedule. Yet the likes of Jonny Bairstow, who tried for an IPL gig but failed, has since been determinedly rested from early-season Championship games. Pointing out the inconsistencies invites irritation, but little open justification. Money talks.
Stokes believes that working with specialist coaches has helped his development. "I think my bowling has gone up another level, working with Eric Simons from South Africa," he said. "All in all, I think my areas are a lot better and tighter than they have been recently in one-day cricket, which solely came down from just working solely with him over the six weeks I was there.
"And other aspects as well - batting in different situations and different pressure - you would hope that coming away from that tournament all parts of my game have got better."
"It was an amazing tournament to be part of. And getting the MVP is obviously something you strive for when you play in tournaments like that.
The auction price did not play on his mind, he said. "Once the whole thing started, you wipe that under the carpet and you judge yourself solely on how you perform on the pitch. That's where all the pressure came from - in wanting to go out there and put in performances."
The IPL teaches players to measure loyalty in weeks, not decades. At Durham, Stokes feels the long-term loyalty of a one-club man; in the IPL no player imagines they have that luxury. That Stokes puts in a prodigious effort whenever he takes the field is taken as read. But asked about next year and he knows little about rules on retained lists, auctions or new teams entering the league. He goes where he is told and puts in some shifts. He is a chattel and financially rewarded for that fact.
"The last eight to ten months have been very full-on," he said. "But, you know, you just look at it as 'I am doing this as a job, playing a sport that I love'. The schedule is very tight and jam-packed but I wouldn't want to do anything else.
"Sometimes when you have three or four weeks off, getting back into it is harder than playing non-stop because your body just doesn't get used to the competiveness of batting, bowling, the stress on your legs fielding for a day.
"So actually having the solid foundation of lots of cricket can be the best thing. You take your rest in between games. The body feels really good. There's no little niggles I'm going to have to play through, touch wood. I'm raring to go."
Ben Stokes was speaking on behalf of Royal London, proud sponsors of one-day cricket
David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps