Ben Stokes, the hero of England's extraordinary World Cup triumph in 2019, has announced he is stepping away from the format that made him a household name in the UK. ESPNcricinfo charts Stokes' peaks and troughs in a rollercoaster ODI career
For the first three years of his international career, it's fair to say that England had no idea what to make of the combative, erratic talent in their midst. Stokes debuted as a 20-year-old in the summer of 2011, as part of the rebuild after that year's World Cup, but in an era when England's instincts were still to build steadily then slog in the final ten overs, he found himself pigeon-holed in the lower-middle order - often as low as No. 8 - while the likes of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott were trusted with the proper batting. He had a top-score of 27 in 12 appearances when, almost out of desperation at the end of a miserable Ashes whitewash, Stokes found himself propelled up to No. 3 midway through the subsequent one-day series. At the second time of asking, he was reunited with the WACA wicket where he'd belted a sublime maiden Test century earlier on the tour, and responded to the new responsibility with an unrecognisably mature innings of 70 from 84 balls. Duly emboldened, Stokes then sealed the deal with the ball, claiming 4 for 38 to deliver England's first victory of the tour, and send a message that - in spite of the rough edges that had led to his expulsion from England's Lions tour the previous winter - here was a player crying out to be trusted.
Stokes' progress wasn't entirely linear thereafter, however, and few setbacks were more 'crushing' than his tour of the Caribbean two months after the Ashes. Despite being retained in the top-order for the three-match ODI series, he returned scores of 5, 4 and 0, which - following on from scores of 0 and 5 in his final two innings in Australia - sent his form into a tail-spin. A week later in Barbados, this would culminate in the infamous punched-locker incident, and a broken wrist that would rule him out of the subsequent World T20 in Bangladesh. Moreover, it ended the management's experiment with Stokes as a top-order option. This attitude bled into the Test team too, where he was picked to bat at No. 8 and responded with three consecutive ducks against India, and by the end of the year - notwithstanding the knowledge of what he'd previously achieved on bouncy decks Down Under - his form more or less precluded him from the following year's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
England's old-school ODI approach duly received its comeuppance in a dismal World Cup campaign, and so, when the new home season got underway two months later, the opportunity was there for a brand new attitude to take root. The visit of Brendon McCullum's New Zealand would prove epochal, but the role of England's interim head coach Paul Farbrace is not to be under-estimated either. He offered Stokes as blank a slate as English cricket as a whole, recalling him to the Test team at No. 6, from where he made an 85-ball hundred in the first Test - the fastest ever made at Lord's - and trusting him to be the heartbeat in a reconfigured one-day side. Overall, his returns were not his most stellar, but in scoring 142 runs from 104 balls all told, he was able to score at more than a run a ball across an entire series for the first time in his ODI career. And, in the series decider at Chester-le-Street, his priceless ability to prise out well-set batters earned him the key wickets of New Zealand's top scorers, Martin Guptill and Kane Williamson, in a classic three-wicket win.
Come the Champions Trophy in 2017, England were on the crest of a very obvious wave. Against all expectations, they'd reached the final of the previous ICC tournament, the World T20 in Kolkata in 2016, and though the treatment meted out to Stokes in that galling final over had taken some of the gloss off their efforts, it was clear they were becoming a white-ball force to be reckoned with, and most particularly across 50 overs, with 10 wins in their previous 11 matches leading up to a crunch clash with Australia at Edgbaston. An England victory would send the Aussies crashing out early, but at 35 for 3 chasing 278, a familiar story appeared to be taking shape. Stokes, however, was in no mood to yield, as he and Eoin Morgan bedded into a fourth-wicket stand of 159 that had put the contest beyond reasonable doubt long before the pair were separated by a run-out with 84 still needed from 109 balls. Stokes duly pressed on, bringing up his century from the penultimate ball before the ever-dank weather closed in, with England already 40 runs to the good on Duckworth-Lewis. It was another critical display of proactivity, even in the midst of apparent adversity. The pity for England was that they mislaid that method in their very next game, the semi-final in Cardiff, when Stokes himself made 34 from 64 balls while seemingly clinging on for dear life on an abrasive deck and against a fired-up and reverse-swinging Pakistan attack. Even that, however, would prove to be a lesson stored up for future use.
A match that ought to be remembered for Moeen Ali's astonishing century, 102 from 57 balls all told, with seven fours and eight sixes, is instead recalled as the reason why Stokes happened to be in Bristol in the small hours of September 25, 2017 - the night on which he was arrested and charged with affray following an incident outside a club. He would be acquitted the following August at the end of a high-profile trial at Bristol Crown Court, but two separate but related truths emerged from the chaos of that episode. Firstly, that England without Stokes was a team without balance or drive, as emphatically shown in that winter's 4-0 Ashes loss. But also, that his brush with career oblivion would tip Stokes' own insatiable work ethic into overdrive. Amid a huge media buzz on his comeback tour in New Zealand in February 2018, Stokes would claim a Player-of-the-Match award in his second match of the series, and come the tour of Sri Lanka the following winter, England's coach Trevor Bayliss had to step in to implore his man to tone down his training, so determined was he to prove he would never let his team-mates down again.
After four years of build-up, the stage was set for England's world-beaters elect. Stokes' own journey had mirrored that of the team around him, and the preceding months had been spent embracing the unfamiliarity of their favourites' tag. And part of that process was about taking responsibility of the clutch moments - quite literally in Stokes' case, with arguably the moment of genius that ignited England's entire campaign. In isolation, the sight of South Africa's No. 8 holing out to deep midwicket might count for little, especially with England already in command of the game. But as he back-pedalled towards the rope, reverse-cupping his right hand to pluck a fast, flat thwack out of the sky, and in the process, all but end any prospect of a fightback, Stokes created a moment that captivated the Oval crowd, and probably settled a few butterflies (though they'd be back soon enough). The fact that he'd also top-scored with 89 from 79 balls in England's 311 for 8 was quickly an afterthought.
The stand-out feature of Stokes' World Cup-winning heroics was his calmness amid the chaos. The hot-head who'd self-destructed at key moments of his early career had been replaced by a zen warrior whose self-knowledge was such that, if he was still there, there was still hope. He'd shown this already in a quietly formidable run of mid-tournament form - with consecutive scores of 82 not out, 89 and 79 against Sri Lanka, Australia and India. And even though England had lost two of those three games to leave their tournament in jeopardy, in the first he'd been left high and dry with 20 runs needed from three unused overs, and in the second, it had required the ball of the tournament from Mitchell Starc to dislodge him.
And so the message was clear as England's chase began to flounder against New Zealand in the final. Stick it out, and we will prevail. Sure he needed two strokes of huge fortune - Trent Boult's step on the rope at long-on, and that deflection off the bat to the boundary. But Stokes' composure in the clutch moments was something to behold - not least his realisation that keeping that final ball from Boult on the ground and accepting the Super Over if needs be was preferable to swinging for glory and risking it all, a lesson he learnt from watching Bangladesh implode with 1 needed from three balls against India at the 2016 T20 World Cup. And then, of course, he trotted straight back out to do it all again, eight vital runs out of 15 setting the stage for Jofra Archer - a bowler whom he was able to lend wise counsel given his own crushing experience in Kolkata three years earlier.
It is only with hindsight that we now know quite how deep Stokes was forced to dig in July 2021 when, while recuperating from a badly broken finger sustained at the IPL, he took a call from the ECB informing him that England's entire ODI squad for the upcoming series against Pakistan had been put into isolation following a Covid-19 outbreak, and would he mind awfully putting aside his R&R, and leading a scratch side with 48 hours' notice? The upshot was astonishing. England cavorted to a 3-0 series win, playing with the same liberation of their seniors, and though Stokes' role was akin to that of an old-school non-playing captain - 54 runs in two innings and five wicketless overs - his authority was unquestionable and in many ways afforded his team on-field permission to puff their chests out and play as though they were first-choices. Barely a fortnight later, however - and in an ominous precursor to today's decision - Stokes had declared he would be taking an indefinite break from all cricket to manage his mental health. By the time he steps away from the format for good on Tuesday, Stokes will have played just ten ODIs for England in the three years since his crowning glory.