Guarded Ben Stokes keeps opinions in check with CDC hearing on horizon

Ben Stokes at England training Getty Images

Ben Stokes looks nervous in a way he rarely does on a cricket pitch.

On the pitch, he's encouraged to express himself. To throw himself into every situation and shape matches with his will and his skill. To play every shot in his arsenal.

But here, in the corner of a coffee shop in the basement of a Colombo hotel, he is on less certain footing. It's not just that he has always been more comfortable expressing himself though deeds than words. It's that, for the first time since the conclusion of his trial in Bristol back in August, he is giving a series of media interviews. It is very clear very early - from the moment he answers the first question: "How has the last year been for you?" with "Yeah, it's been good" - that he is going to play as few strokes as possible.

He is limited in what he can say, of course. And the media are limited in what can be asked. The court case is off limits. And so are questions about the ECB's Cricket Discipline Commission (CDC) which follows shortly after this tour, and through which both he and Alex Hales may face further sanctions for the Bristol incident. Which basically leaves us asking: 'So, the iceberg incident apart, how was that cruise on Titanic?'

These things can happen. In an interview towards the end of that grim 2013-14 Ashes tour, Andy Flower was asked how he was getting on with Kevin Pietersen and replied something along the lines of: 'You're asking the wrong question. The question should be: Is Joe Root an exceptional young man. And the answer to that question is 'Yes, Joe Root is an exceptional young man.' Very often the media and the team are on the same side; sometimes they inhabit a different universe with wildly different agendas.

We may well hear a fulsome explanation from Stokes one day for what happened that fateful night in Bristol - complete with an acknowledgement of some errors of judgment and an appreciation of the lessons learned. But it will have to wait until the CDC has reached a verdict. Accepting any fault before then could open himself up to further sanction. This interview has to be understood in that context.

But it's a shame. For it means that Stokes is in danger of looking like a politician trying to avoid a straight question. So instead of illustrating the side of him that signs every autograph and poses for every selfie, instead of the side of him that has made a point of sending encouraging text messages to Reece Topley as he recovers from what may prove career-defining surgery, instead of the side of him that is hugely popular with team-mates and team management and prides himself on his selfless contributions, he appears guarded and cagey and defensive. He's better than that.

The main point he wants to make is that he is looking to the future. And it is true that it could well be the next 12 months - a period that includes a World Cup and an Ashes series - that define how he is remembered.

"There's a lot of people in this group who I'd say are more than work colleagues: they're friends. You find out who they are in tough situations and members of this group have been unbelievable" Stokes on his England team-mates

But the past will always be there, too, and there are a few signs that events of the last few months have changed him. He has always worked hard in training but, on this tour, he has thrown himself into every session to the extent that the team management are urging him to work less hard. In this heat, with the demands upon him as an all-rounder and key fielder, the amount he asks of himself may prove unsustainable. Cramp has been a recurring problem.

So, is he trying to make amends for the trouble he brought on his team? The media attention; the curfews; the circus that the Ashes tour became? And does he, having faced the possibility that everything could be torn away from him, appreciate playing for England more as a consequence? Is he, perhaps, trying a bit too hard?

"I'm not sure it's trying too hard if you try and give everything every time," he says.

"I have always viewed myself as lucky to be in this situation and playing for England. And you appreciate that a bit more, I guess. But there's such a big summer coming up now... it's tough to think about the past when you have such an exciting thing coming up.

"I've always known how lucky I am to play for England. I'm constantly thinking about how lucky I am to be representing my country. Whether that feeling has grown, I'm not sure, as I've always had that awareness.

"When you're in the public eye and you're a name I guess you are a role model. I've always known that and always understood it. That hasn't changed."

His batting has changed a little, though. While the powerful strokes are still there, they now appear to have been complemented with a patience and discipline that promises to make him a more rounded player. His defiant partnership with Jos Buttler at Trent Bridge springs to mind. Is that relevant to his off-field issues?

"I realised it's easier to adapt to different situations rather than just go out there and say 'I am going to play the way I am known for'," he says. "It's nice knowing I have got that self-control, as well. It's not how I try to base my game to play like that but it is what the situation called for. I will still be trying to go out there with the mindset of how I normally play.

"The way we played in those Tests against India was different. Our middle-order are known for power and counter-attacking. But we managed to adapt to game situations and I think a few of our players found another level to their game. The way we reined ourselves in was good."

The one time he becomes animated in the conversation is when talking about the support he has enjoyed from team-mates in recent months. While he plays it down, the sense is he endured some dark days while his team-mates were away at the Ashes and he was awaiting the jury's verdict. It's clear the support he has enjoyed from the dressing room has been unstinting.

"You do [feel gratitude]," he says, "There's a lot of people in this group who I'd say are more than work colleagues: they're friends. You find out who they are in tough situations and members of this group have been unbelievable."

There are a couple of other interesting moments. He suggests he is unlikely to go to the Big Bash, reasoning that he will benefit from time off between the end of the Sri Lanka tour and start of the Caribbean one - "The last couple of times I've done some franchise cricket on the back of a long summer I've come back with a few little niggles," he says - while he also insists that, despite losing the vice-captaincy, he remains "a leader in the group".

But maybe the most revealing moment comes at the end. Asked if he has a message for England supporters, he pauses and stutters: "I'll try and win as many games as I can". It's not especially eloquent and it's not especially original. But Stokes has always expressed himself best on the pitch and the sense remains he feels as if he owes this team and its supporters some match-winning performances. Motivated as never before, the next 12 months promise much for him and England.