Perfect stories don’t require perfect endings, but the chance to put the first of two final cherries on an already overly decorated cake will present itself to England’s captain over the next seven weeks where, in order to claim victory, England will have to win as many Test matches in India as the rest of the world has managed in the last eleven years. Three.
“This is the hardest place to come and win a game, let alone a series,” Stokes said to the UK press in Hyderabad. “And that’s the exciting thing for us as a group, is that we’ve got an amazing opportunity in front of us to do something.”
Stokes is a man who only awakens in a crisis. The mundanities of life are not enough to lift him from his slumber unless the stakes are at their highest.
“Never leave early. Never take the easy way out. Never leave my teammates hanging,” were his words after his century in the World Cup against the Netherlands, where many were questioning his decision to stay out and finish playing a doomed tournament early in order to get himself as fit as possible for his teammates of the future.
It is a trait that has been to England’s benefit and detriment for years. A commitment to forever being Superman rather than Clark Kent that has seen him carry the team on his back on countless occasions, with chronic tendonitis in his knee to show for it now.
“I’ve not given too much away with my knee stuff over the last couple of years. It’s not like you have surgery and you are immediately better. Surgery is always the last option,” Stokes says.
“Throughout the whole process, it was chatting with the medical team, the surgeon himself. As long as I felt I could do my job to a certain extent, we were always pushing surgery back as long as we could. But after the World Cup, in terms of how my knee was by the end, and the swelling that came out, that was a danger sign for the surgeon, and it was definitely time to have the surgery.”
According to head coach Brendon McCullum, Stokes is as fit as a ‘greyhound’ after an intensive rehab period following his knee surgery in November. A comparison that is much closer to reality than perhaps McCullum intended since, much like a greyhound, Stokes is willing to run himself into the ground, intensely loyal and cannot bowl.
“Bowling is such an unnatural thing for the body to go through that it's not going to be a case of right, I'm good now, straight back into bowling. The last ball I bowled was actually in the Ashes at Lord’s. So my body is nowhere near ready to sort of even be thinking about competitive bowling.
“But if I get to a stage in this tour where we can start building myself back up to bowling and then hopefully by the summer that's where I’ve earmarked as playing a full role as I want to be doing.”
Innovation is driven by necessity. And where a weakness is created for England by the lack of Stokes the all-rounder, they will be able to lean on the strength of Stokes the captain to find their way to 20 wickets a match with a threadbare attack.
Of the eight bowlers England have selected, Gus Atkinson, Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley are all uncapped, whilst Rehan Ahmed has played just once. The result is increased responsibility on the shoulders of premier spinner Jack Leach, who himself is returning from a stress fracture that has kept him out since last summer.
“First and foremost,” Stokes said of Leach’s role as leader of the attack, “what he will be able to do is speak to the guys and tell them what it’s like to bowl under my captaincy. They are coming into this group for the first time and would have been captained or spoken to in a different way.
“What Leachy will be able to do is give them that confidence around attacking decisions and attacking cricket and field placings and that Stokesey isn’t going to care too much [if they go for runs]. Leachy has been the No1 spinner and he’s grown into that role the more he’s played. He’s openly said that he’s found a new confidence and it’s just about attacking without worrying… as long as he’s trying to take wickets that’s the most important thing I want from him. I think he can relay that message to the new guys who have come in, as well as myself obviously.”
Stokes could retire tomorrow and be remembered as one of England’s most innovative and game-changing captains. A leader who changed the way his players think about the game - and in turn - how it’s played. The catchphrase attached to the mindset may be “BazBall” but by all accounts this is Stokes’ team crafted in his image, with McCullum there to pump the brakes when Stokes’ genius threatens to cross the thin line to insanity.
With 13 wins from his 18 matches in charge, having inherited a team with one win in 17, Stokes’ achievements as captain are already tangible despite his focus being on the intangibles of the sport. He has said from day one, that his form of attacking cricket is about placing entertainment before results. A mindset that will be put to the test with the very real threat looming of falling to a five-nil defeat to India in their own conditions.
Nevertheless, to lose to this India team does not make a team bad. It just makes them human. Luckily for England, Stokes regularly appears to be anything but.