Ben Stokes has won three Man-of-the-Match awards in eight matches in IPL 2017, each performance leading to a Rising Pune Supergiant victory. His most recent award was also his first for a batting performance - an unbeaten 63-ball 103, that saw Rising Pune recover from 10 for 3 to chase down 162 with five wickets to spare. It is numbers like these that Stokes would like to judge himself on instead of being bogged down by the pressure of the INR 14.5 crore price tag at the auction, Rising Pune captain Steven Smith said.
"He's been hitting the ball really well," Smith said on Monday. "We're very happy with where he's at and how he's played. That was an amazing innings: under pressure, came in at three for nothing and to play the way he did, he timed his innings beautifully, took the game on at the right time. Fantastic knock to get us home. He hit some very clean balls there, chose the right balls to hit, too.
"He's always said from the start that he judges himself on how he plays. He's not going to put any extra pressure on himself just because he has a big price tag next to his name."
Smith, who had reportedly played an active role in identifying players for the franchise at the auction, revealed he had asked the team owners to go all out for Stokes. The England allrounder eventually became the most expensive overseas player ever in the auction.
"We were very excited to get him. I had said before the auction to the guys [owners] just do what you have to to get him," Smith said. "Allrounders are so valuable in T20 cricket and he bats, bowls and fields well. He's a perfect fit for our team, particularly after Mitchell Marsh was ruled out as well. He's done a terrific job for us. We paid a big amount to get him. We know he's a quality player. [He] certainly earned his cash tonight.
"For us it's about trying to get to know each other for six or eight weeks and try and get the best out of each other. Even learn a bit about one another. The team's been really good. We've got some really good characters in the shed there."
Rising Pune have won five of their last six games, with three victories at home. Over the last 10 days, they played four games in Pune and one in Mumbai, and Smith had identified this clutch of matches as an opportune time for a surge on the points table.
"I actually said to the group of guys that we had five games, four here [in Pune] and one in Mumbai," he said. "Not a lot of travel. Home ground, we wanted to try and make it a bit of a fortress.
"We're four [wins] and two [losses] here, if I'm right. That's reasonable going. One more game to play here against the Kings [XI Punjab on May 14], so hopefully we can make it 5 and 2. I've said that these five games are very important for us and I think we've played some really good cricket and it's nice to get over the line and be in the position where we are now."
With the exception of the victories against Royal Challengers Bangalore, all other Rising Pune wins were clinched in the last over. Smith recognised that closing out tight games has proved to be the defining factor in their improved run in IPL 2017, after a seventh-place finish last season. The good work on the field, according to Smith, has coincided with off-field bonding.
"It's certainly been a different season for us," Smith said. "This year we've been able to get over the line in those close games. Last year we were at the end of that. That's how T20 cricket works sometimes. We've been really fortunate there.
"It's been good how we've been able to gel together as a team. I'd say for us and Gujarat [Lions] as well, would've been the toughest for the two franchises, given that we were new teams. A lot of other teams have had their core players for a long time so they know each other really well. They have had many years of bonding together. It's nice to be playing some good cricket at the same time; it helps."
Rising Pune's upswing has meant New Zealand pacer Lockie Ferguson, who picked up 2 for 7 against Royal Challengers and was named Man of the Match, didn't find a place in the XI on Stokes' return from an injury on Monday.
"It was difficult [to leave out Ferguson] but we had some different thoughts," Smith said. "We thought this is our best combination. Dan Christian has bowled particularly well in the games he's played and he's a power-hitter towards the end as well. He's done a really good job for us. So tonight it was the right call.
"It's about trying to get the right balance for your team in any conditions you play. It's not just our team that faces this. Every team has some quality players on their bench in the opposition, so it's tough on the guys that they miss out, but you have to try and pick your best team for each game."