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Ben Stokes exclusive: 'No matter what happens, Bristol will always be there'

Ben Stokes at England training Getty Images

"How do you manage?"

A ceiling fan fights an unequal battle against the humidity. The words hang in the air.

A little boy, recently rescued from a life of slavery, has just asked - in all innocence - how Ben Stokes manages the burden of batting and bowling.

Like the other children in the room, the boy had been sold by his family to traffickers who sold him on to a factory in Jaipur. Most of them worked 15-hour days in appalling conditions. Most have received no education. Nearly all of them have suffered from malnutrition. Many have been physically abused; some sexually.

"How do you manage?" the boy, full of wide-eyed wonder and admiration, asks the millionaire cricketer.

If you ever need to be reminded of how fortunate you are, visit a children's home.

*****

And to think he was worried about being remembered as the man who was hit for four sixes in the last over of the World T20 final.

We are talking, by coincidence, three years to the day since that game. Such was its significance at the time that it forms the basis of Stokes' first autobiography, Firestarter. You suspect it may not gain more than a paragraph or two by the time he sits down to write the follow-up. It barely came up in this conversation.

It would be simplistic to suggest the events of recent times - and, in particular, that night in Bristol - have made Stokes realise how fortunate he is. As he puts it, "It's not as if I ever left the pitch thinking 'I wish I'd given a bit more today.' You were always going to get everything from me." He always appreciated it. He always worked hard.

But just as a bumpy plane journey can leave you appreciating the little things in life that little bit more, so Stokes is aware - acutely aware - that he almost lost it all. And, since his return, he has seemed even more determined to ensure he makes the most of it. His fitness has improved - and he was exceptionally fit before the incident - his bowling has been excellent and, with the bat, he has taken on more responsibility than ever before.

"The easy thing to say is yes, it made me appreciate it more," he says. "But I don't know: I always did appreciate it.

"But thinking all this is going to be taken away from me might be the thing that has changed the way I do things. I was that close to my career ending and being thrown away just like that. Maybe that is it.

"It sounds silly but, could Bristol have been the best thing that could have happened to me? Who knows. But maybe in terms of my way of thinking."

*****

We are here - at a hostel in Jaipur to see first hand, a project run by the British Asian Trust which is fighting to tackle child labour. Struck by the poverty he witnessed in India, Stokes went to Manoj Badale, the owner of Rajasthan Royals, and Ranjit Barthakur, the chairman, about a year ago and asked what he could do to help. They recommended this project. He responded with a substantial contribution.

"Ideally I wouldn't have said anything about it," Stokes says. "It's a shame. I had to mention some of these things in the disciplinary hearing, but I had to because of what was being said about me. If Bristol hadn't happened then nobody would be any the wiser. But there comes a point when you have had enough about people saying things about you.

"I know I'm in a very fortunate position. I make a good living doing something I used to do for fun as a kid messing around in the garden. I'm in a fortunate position, so you try and give what you can, I guess."

He was, eventually, persuaded by the charity to allow two journalists on this trip. They pointed out that the publicity his visit could generate may prove as valuable as his funding. He is still uncomfortable that some will see the visit as nothing more than a PR stunt. Some will, no doubt, but, accompanied by his dad, his brother and his cousin, it is clear all are deeply affected by the experience.

"It is a terrible situation," Stokes says. "But it is good that people are going to hear about it and see what I've had my eyes opened to. I'll definitely going to stay involved."

*****

The nature of criminal trials in the UK give the prosecution the first opportunity to make their case. As a result, such trials often throw up the most eye-catching headlines on their opening days. Invariably, the allegations are printed on front pages; the refutations - when they come, later in the trial - on page 44. Stokes' case was no different: some of the headlines over the first few days made for hideous reading.

Stokes was ultimately cleared. The judge made note of his honesty and the two young men he was accused of homophobically abusing thanked him for "saving them". If you saw just a few seconds of the footage of that night, you could easily and reasonably conclude he behaved appallingly. If you saw every bit of it, you might well come away - as the judge and jury did - wondering how much worse it might have been had he not intervened.

"I've sat and thought about all the things that could have happened differently that night," he says. "I don't know what else I'd have done."

But that's not the whole story. The incident happened at 2.30am. During an international series. After he had been drinking for several hours. There's no way a professional sportsperson should have been in that situation. And he knows it.

"Nothing good happens after midnight," he says sounding, surely for the first time in his life, like a 50-year-old accountant who has just declared that all modern music sounds like welding.

"I totally get where all the anger and all the hate came from," he says. "I regret doing it. I'm not going to sit here and say I'd do it again. You're an international sportsman and people are seeing you do that. I totally understand it and it is a hugely regrettable thing. But I can't take it back because it happened.

"I apologised to the team in New Zealand. And I apologised to supporters after the CDC [Cricket Discipline Commission]. Not just the supporters of England cricket; it was for all cricket supporters.

"I don't go out anymore. I mean, I might go out for dinner, but I don't go out-out [an expression for a big night out] anymore.

"I used to love going out and celebrating with the lads. But we can do that in the hotel and I don't miss it. I don't feel that urge anymore. Once you make the transition to not doing it then you don't miss it

"It's pointless. You get recognised and then, after someone has had a few ego boosters, a few vodka and whatevers, they feel they can come up to you and say whatever they feel. There are people ready to target you everywhere you go. I prefer staying in and chatting nonsense with my team-mates.

"I've had so many people say stuff to me. I meet them, have a chat for five minutes and they think they can say what they like. I used to laugh it off, but now I think 'why do you think you can say that to me? You don't know me.'

"One guy said to me out of nowhere, 'Oh, don't punch me!' and I said you don't know me whatsoever. We've stood here for five minutes having a chat because you like cricket and now you want to take the mickey. He said sorry."

*****

The worst moment didn't necessarily come at the trial. He knew that would be tough. He had resolved to deal with it.

He thought the verdict would bring relief. And it did, for a moment. But then came the news that the ECB would launch its own disciplinary process - the board had always said it would but perhaps Stokes had not been focused on that while faced with a criminal trial - and a nervousness at the response from supporters after all the details emerged from the court case.

"I'd say it was the toughest two weeks of my life," he says. "I thought that was going to be it. I thought I was going to be so happy, it is done, it is over and that is it, but nah.

"Walking out at Trent Bridge [against India] was absolutely awful. All I could hear were boos. I was nervous going to field on the boundary. It was a dreadful, dreadful week.

"I shouldn't have played. Looking back on it now, I should have told Joe Root 'I can't play this week', but I thought getting back in and around the lads would have distracted me. But I carried the trial week into that game with me."

Were there boos? Maybe. One or two newspaper reports do mention them, though.

"Even if there weren't any, that is all I could hear," he says. "All the worry was about what people would think of me that week. It was all I could think about. I look back at me walking out and only caring about what people were saying about me. It wasn't great."

He feels, in retrospect, that he would not have been in the right frame of mind to play in the 2017-18 Ashes, either, even if he had been available for selection. At the time he was desperate to join up with the rest of the squad and flew to New Zealand to play for Canterbury to ensure he was on hand and match-ready should he be required.

"I wanted to be ready in case I was called up," he says. "If I'd have stayed at home for three months and then got called up and hadn't played any cricket, then I'd be no use. I thought I could kill two birds with one stone: go out and see my family, play some cricket and if everything goes well then I'll get back to the team with some cricket behind me. At the time I was thinking 'Why can't I play in the Ashes? Why?'

"But I didn't get it. If I had turned up, it would have been a circus. Especially with the way things were going on over there with their media coverage.

"Every time [they did media] they were getting asked about me. There would be a couple of cricket questions and then it was about me. I'm sure they were getting sick to death of being asked about it. So I was texting everyone who had to do an interview and saying 'I'm really sorry about that'. That stuff was hard to watch. I couldn't have played in the Ashes."

"No matter what happens in life with me now, the Bristol thing will always be there. It's something I'll always carry with me. It'll always be there. Always"

He dismisses the idea he could have changed the result, either.

"You become a 50,000-times better player when you're not in the team," he says. "One man doesn't make a team. I could have played the first two Tests, got four ducks in a row and been dropped."

So, if he was so sensitive to the reaction of supporters that he built up whatever boos there might have been at Trent Bridge into something they most certainly were not, and if he felt sufficiently bad about the extra pressure the Bristol incident piled upon his colleagues that he felt obliged to endlessly apologise, is it not possible that the hangover would continue to bother him upon his return?

*****

Certainly Stokes' figures, since his comeback, do not quite match the effort. Or the figures prior to his period out of the game. There's been no five-wicket haul in Test cricket, for example. And no Test century either. He has played 13 Tests in that period.

While statistics rarely tell the whole story, his Test bowling average since Bristol is 25.93, which represents some outstanding efforts on slow wickets in Sri Lanka, in particular, and he has averaged 28.92 with the bat. A strike rate of 46.31 compares to 63.77 in the 39 Tests before his suspension.

Could it be that he has become more cautious in an attempt to take more responsibility for the team? That he has lost just a bit of his natural positivity as a result of becoming a more thoughtful man? That the scars are showing.

He doesn't think so. He thinks conditions have simply been bowler-friendly and he has had to adapt.

"Alastair Cook said that conditions in series against India were the hardest he's ever had to play in," Stokes says. "And he's played everywhere.

"Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami were brilliant. They've grown up in India where they have to put the ball in the same area over and over. When they come to England, get a Dukes ball in their hand and conditions in their favour they are impossible to play. It was so hard. I had to bat sensibly."

Moeen Ali is not so sure.

"The difference is that his batting has become careful now whereas before it was carefree," he tells ESPNcricinfo. "He is slowly getting back to that way, but it will take time."

And why did it change?

"I think he feels like he's let us down a little bit and he's trying to make it up. He doesn't. He doesn't owe me anything. I feel he was defending other people. But you can understand it. I think he feels like he owes the team and he feels like he needs to give back which has taken a bit of time."

Moeen and Stokes may seem an unlikely combination, but they hang out often and there is clearly a great deal of shared respect and affection between them. They really aren't so different in person, either.

"He's one of my good friends," Moeen says. "If I needed help away from cricket, he would be one of the people I could ring. He's not what people think he is. He's one of the nicest people I've played cricket with."

*****

After the interview, over a coffee, Stokes confides he is a bit surprised that so much of it was about Bristol. His agent - the former England batsman, Neil Fairbrother - politely but firmly make the same point on the phone a day or two later. They have moved on, they say. Can't we all?

Well, yes. We can and, to an extent, we probably should. But the past informs the present and he hasn't actually spoken about this before.

It's a point Stokes reluctantly understands.

"No matter what happens in life with me now, the Bristol thing will always be there," he says. "It's something I'll always carry with me. It'll always be there. Always.

"I want to do things on the field to be remembered for. If we win the World Cup, that becomes the first paragraph [of his ESPNcricinfo profile], doesn't it? I don't want to be remembered as the guy who had a fight in the street."

I ask him if he thinks Hugh Grant is defined by the episode involving Divine Brown. He had never heard about it. "Well, there you are," I say. He looks encouraged. And as if he really wants to look the incident up on Google

"Obviously I want to win World Cups and Ashes, but it's actually not the be-all and end-all. If it doesn't happen, there are other things to life"

*****

One of the boys in the hostel sings a song of greeting. There is brief discussion among the Stokes family over whether they should, as New Zealand protocol dictates, perform a version of the Haka in response. They decide not to in the end, perhaps on the basis that its meaning could be lost in translation.

Ged Stokes, Ben's dad, has a theory. He reckons that Ben's Maori heritage may have played a part in the formation of his character. Without being absurdly reductive, it might go some way to explaining the indefatigable spirit. "Believe it or not, with my ginger hair and pale skin, I've Maori blood in me from my mum's side," Ben says.

Whether there's anything in that theory, it's clear that Ged, a former rugby league player and then coach, is a huge influence. Like Ben, he is uncomplaining about physical hardship - Ged famously had a finger amputated so he could get back to playing rugby more quickly after injury - and like Ben he is affable and a strong proponent of family and loyalty. "We spent so much time together when I was a kid," Ben says. "Great times." He has found, quite naturally and to his amusement, that he is bringing his own son up in exactly the same fashion.

"It's a perspective check, isn't it?" he says, reflecting on the visit. "Obviously I want to win World Cups and Ashes, but it's actually not the be-all and end-all. If it doesn't happen, there are other things to life."

There sure are, though you don't expect top sportspeople to necessarily say it ahead of potentially career-defining events. But it's that balance that Stokes has found that bodes well for his future. Fitter, more focused and more aware of the how fortunate he is, he knows he almost threw it all away. Now, still aged only 27, he stands on the brink of this pivotal season as a player just about at the peak of his powers and a man who has, after some bumps along the way, matured into the role-model England cricket so desires.

You suspect the first few lines of those Stokes profiles may have to be rewritten before long.

Anyone wanting to donate to the project trying to end child labour in Jaipur can do so here: British Asian Trust