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Match Analysis

Ben Stokes does it again - and surprises no one

England's go-to man defines another World Cup with a pair of innings under immense pressure

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
"We all know what he's capable of, and not just match-winning innings, but match-winning innings under serious amounts of pressure. I know well that if it comes down to the crunch that you want a man like Ben Stokes walking out."
That was assistant coach Paul Collingwood speaking before England's game against New Zealand, where their tournament stood on a knife-edge after the defeat to Ireland and washout against Australia. It took Stokes one more game after that, but he defined another World Cup with a pair of innings under immense pressure against Sri Lanka and Pakistan. England had to win four matches in a row to take the trophy; Stokes starred in two of them.
There is a wider redemption arc that fits with Stokes' performance at the MCG after what happened in the 2016 tournament when Carlos Brathwaite took him for four sixes to win the game for West Indies. However, in the intervening years, which have also involved a major off-field controversy and a lengthy spell away to manage his mental health, he had more than delivered when England needed him most, not least that memorable 2019 summer with the ODI World Cup and Headingley Ashes Test double, but also more recently as he took on rejuvenating the Test side alongside Brendon McCullum.
"It's an amazing story," Jos Buttler said. "It's been an amazing journey, all his big moments… he's never let that 2016 final push him back and the things he's gone on to achieve since then are just amazing."
Still, leading into the tournament, and during the early matches, there was debate about Stokes' position in England's T20 side, even if you sensed he was the type of player who would find a way. He had never previously had a clear role, particularly with regards his batting and where he slotted into the power-packed order. His numbers were unconvincing, albeit partly reflecting the haphazard tasks he had been given.
Neither of his vital innings over the last 10 days have come when faced with huge run-rate pressure - although things were getting dicey when 49 were needed off 35 balls against Pakistan - but there's the intangible factor, which can't be measured purely by numbers, of being able to deliver in the biggest games.
Eoin Morgan, whose presence has still been felt during this tournament and a name often referenced by the current team, spoke on Sky Sports of how Stokes recognises and wants to be in the clutch moments.
This was not a free-flowing Stokes innings - it came towards the end of a year when he often took a T20 approach to Tests during the home season - and Buttler joked afterwards that if he'd played that way in a Test match he would have dropped himself. He was given a working over from Naseem Shah, who sent down one of the best none-fors that was possible, beating Stokes with three consecutive deliveries in the 12th over.
But Stokes knew what was on the line. Having battled to 24 off 34 balls, he pierced the off side with a back-foot drive against Haris Rauf who was also outstanding with the ball. Then he seized on the moment when Shaheen Shah Afridi's brave effort to return from a knee injury was halted after one delivery, crunching Iftikhar Ahmed's offspin through the covers then launching him just over long-off for six. Briefly there were flashbacks to the Trent Boult parried six at Lord's in 2019.
All of a sudden it was 28 needed off 24 balls. Three boundaries from Moeen Ali in the next over and the job was almost done.
"He always stands up in the biggest moments," Buttler said. "He's a man who can take a lot of pressure on his shoulders and perform and absolutely with him in the middle you know you've got a good chance. Just so proud of him, pleased for him that he's stood up and done it again.
"He's a true match winner, and he's been there in those scenarios time and time again. He just has a lot of know-how. It certainly wasn't his most fluent innings or probably didn't time the ball as well as he can, but you knew he was never going to go down without a fight and stand up and be there at the end. We were immensely lucky to have him, and he's one of the great players of English cricket."
There is another part of the Stokes career story where this performance could sit. He missed the squad for the 2015 ODI World Cup in Australia which became (another) nadir for England's white-ball cricket, but the catalyst as to what was to follow under Morgan and now Buttler. Since that omission, which raised the question of whether a superb talent would be squandered, Stokes has dominated the world game, navigating personal and professional challenges along the way.
Test success came first on his return, followed by the evolution of his ODI game - his retirement from 50-over cricket means as he won't have the chance to star in India next year, although it may be unwise to completely rule out a change of heart - but in T20Is there had not been the crowning moment.
It didn't come in a blaze of fours and sixes, which in many ways fitted the way the tournament played out, but he was there when it mattered. As he let out a roar on hitting the winning runs and dropped his bat on the MCG turf, another chapter of an extraordinary career had been written.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo