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Match Analysis

No fairytale hometown finish for England's ODI totem

As Ben Stokes brought the curtain down on his one-day career, the overwhelming feeling was sadness

Five tortuous overs, creaking red-faced around a sweltering Chester-le-Street outfield, five forgettable runs and a humbling 62-run defeat to South Africa. A reminder for Ben Stokes, in his final ODI, that cricket does not owe you a thing.
Not that Stokes has ever approached the game in that way. Perhaps the closest was here, actually, for number 105, styled as a farewell after his impromptu retirement from the one-day format on Monday. It was a decision clearly made on a whim, which doesn't make it any less thought out. He was already rested for the T20Is against India that followed the four Tests against New Zealand and India, and was going to sit out the three T20Is against South Africa (and the Hundred) ahead of the Test matches in August.
Perhaps if the schedule was skewed a different way, Stokes might not have come to the realisation ODIs were the one to bin. Ultimately, though it was the volume rather than the order of the 12 limited-overs matches spread across 24 days. His statement carried a dagger for the powers that be and the crammed fixture list they have concocted, a point he insisted remained as the ECB were checking and double-checking as they do all released utterances from their players. He reiterated the sentiment to Sky Sports and BBC Test Match Special ahead of play on Tuesday. As ever with Stokes, the power of his words are carried in the fact he can say them, as much as what he said.
From now on, these are no longer Stokes' problems. Nor is it his job in the immediate future to work out just how England turn around what has been a dire nine days in the 50-over format, with three pretty comprehensive defeats out of four. This 62-run defeat to put them 1-0 down against South Africa was all the more dispiriting given they were never quite in it, aside from when Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow reprised their century-addled partnership to bring us back to those glory days of 2019. That proved to be the only throwback tribute this Tuesday.
The one the Durham faithful truly wanted didn't come, especially given this was only Stokes' fourth international appearance out of 222 at his home ground. The situation set before him was a familiar one, requiring the kind of rescue act that has him regarded as the fourth emergency service. Roy and Bairstow's demise within six overs of one another gave Stokes a chance to bat one last time in coloured clothing with good mate Joe Root, and 209 to get of the 334 target and 26 overs to do it in.
He could only manage 5, trapped in front attempting the same reverse sweep that brought about his downfall at Lord's against India. Then it was leg-spinning force Yuzvendra Chahal, here it was bit-part offspinner Aiden Markram. This would usually be the place for some extrapolation about his headspace had he not told us already.
Arguably the most dispiriting parts were in the field. He was as valiant as ever, rushing at the ball to such an extent that he was chewing turf two deliveries from the end of South Africa's innings after throwing himself head first at a shot down the ground that eventually went for four. His five overs were expensive (0 for 44), though featured the odd delivery - such as the one that struck Janneman Malan - that belied a surface slowly baking in the 37-degree heat.
While others took time off the field, he remained on throughout, at times limping after his overs or after a particularly full-blooded dive. Again, we know his body can only take so much, but it was hard to shake the strangeness of seeing Stokes like this. These flashes of vulnerability that would come and go in an instant, as if he were Superman puffing occasionally of a Kryptonite vape.
Of course, it is dangerous to refer to any athlete in terms that put him above the physical and emotional toil of a regular person. And certainly after his mental health break last year, Stokes is now more au fait with his internal rhythms than ever before. But it was in ODIs that, really, the legend of what we know of Ben Stokes came to be.
Broadly, it is the format where he has the best record: an average just under 40 with the bat (strike-rate of 95), 74 dismissals and 49 catches, with a few worldies dotted about in there.
His omission from the 2015 World Cup squad drew criticism, even if justified given he averaged just 16.25 across 14 innings in 2014. The crux of the derision, however, was not based on form but what his non-selection said about a cautious attitude. That a pugnacious 23-year-old with a high ceiling and lust for the grander stages was not to be trusted.
In hindsight, Stokes might be regarded as a totemic figure in the revolution that followed. In the 71 ODIs played between his readmission in 2015 to the end of the 2019 World Cup, he averaged 50, scoring 2400 of his overall 2924 runs, along with three hundreds. There were also 50 wickets.
The Lord's final and an 84 not out to take England home from the brink of defeat was the true legacy maker, capturing the country's imagination as it played out in front of a free-to-air crowd. But the tournament as a whole - 465 runs at 66.42, seven dismissals and an economy rate of 4.83 - confirmed the arrival of a global talisman who had that rare, oxymoron trait of delivering rarely seen brilliance on demand.
Even that remarkable stanza in his career had an ODI-adjacent origin story. After all, it was following a 50-over win against West Indies back in 2017 that he embarked on that ill-fated night out in Bristol that cost him the best part of a year in his career and a whole heap of goodwill. Both of which he made up for in 2019.
"Probably, as with every England cricket fan, there's a bit of sadness that Ben is no longer available in this form of the game," captain Jos Buttler said after the match. "He's been an ambassador for us as a team. You know you get 100 percent from him, he's been a real leader in this team, to take it [to] where it is now from where it was. Guys who play like Ben are once in a generation players. It's a good challenge for us to work out our best way forward as a team without him."
Buttler's sadness will no doubt also come from losing a general and a totem for excellence out in the middle and in training. You wonder if he ever thought he would have to do without him when taking the job in the first place. Not that it would govern his decision to take on the limited-overs role, but he'll now be the first England captain for a while who will have to move forward without Stokes to call upon.
The real sadness to all this is Stokes has never been one to leave his team in the lurch, but has seemingly been forced to. And England look decidedly mundane, desperate for more X-factor cricketers like Ben Stokes. Not fewer.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo