When Ben Stokes was bought by the then named Rising Pune Supergiants for INR 14.5 crore (£1.7m), a record fee for a foreign player, it felt as though he was on a hiding to nothing in the tournament. Those of us who have watched Stokes develop into the world class player he is knew he was worth the investment but I doubt many expected him to universally win over the doubters and light up the competition as he has. Stokes has, in my view, been the major factor in turning Rising Pune Supergiant from the laughing stock they were last year (thanks to their ridiculous name and astrologically minded owner) into the first finalists at this years competition.
It was a low-key start for Stokes with his debut against Jos Buttler’s Mumbai, taking just one wicket (Kieron Pollard) and scoring a useful 21 which was overshadowed by Steve Smith’s 84. This match did begin a trend of victories for Pune over rivals Mumbai, a trend which continued in the semi-final despite Stokes’ absence. In the second game of the tournament against Kings XI Punjab Stokes was utilised at 4 and came in the 7th over, hitting three 6s and two 4s in a 32 ball 50. Pune entered a run of three defeats after the opening game, including the match against Punjab. In this run Stokes was consistently the most economical seamer for his side and it would be his performances that would drag the side up the table. Heading to the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore Pune needed to defend 161 on a ground famous for its runfests. Stokes took 3-18 from his 4 overs, getting the big wicket of Virat Kohli and bowling Shane Watson and Adam Milne. This was Stokes’ first man of the match award and, despite a minor injury which saw him miss two games, his form was to continue.
Again against Mumbai, who had been the run away leaders, Stokes starred with the ball and in the field. His four overs included a wicket maiden as he removed Buttler and took a stunning catch of the final over as Pune defended 160 again and Stokes took another man of the match. Stokes’ best performance of the tournament would come against Gujarat Lions however. Pune were now gunning for a playoff position and, requiring 162 to win, Stokes came in to bat with his side 10-3 in the second over. With time to play himself in Stokes built partnerships with MS Dhoni and Dan Christian, accelerating against the left arm spin of Ravi Jadeja. In the first ball of the final over, with Pune needing 8 to win, Stokes smashed a 4 through cover to make his first t20 hundred, finishing with 103* (63) out of his teams total of 167. An amazing innings which is, without doubt, one of the best hundreds scored in the IPL. Stokes continued to win matches for his side, with a crucial 25 ball 39 against the Sunrisers Hyderabad which was followed up by 3-30 in his four overs. Warner, Dhawan and Williamson were the batsmen he removed, again showing his knack of taking crucial wickets.
Overall Stokes contributed superbly with bat, ball and in the field. If anything Pune missed a trick by not playing Stokes higher up the order, with Smith at three this would be difficult but having him come in below Dhoni in some matches seemed bizarre. Another option would have been to have Stokes open in some matches, giving him the chance to build an innings is the best way to gain full value from his batting. No player has had his impact in this year’s tournament and hopefully he will be named as the player of IPL, despite not being available for the final.
Looking at the statistics (as of 16/05/17), Stokes scored 316 runs at a strike rate of 142.98 this tournament. A superb effort as he outscored Glenn Maxwell, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. If Stokes had been given the chance to open instead of the out of form Rahane or consistently given the opportunity to come in at four there is clear potential for him to have a far greater season with the bat. It was the ball where Stokes fared better as he was one of the stand out seam bowlers in the tournament, a fact which I am sure will be very satisfying after the unfair criticism he received in some quarters after the world t20 final. While Stokes 12 wickets is less than his team mate Unadkat’s 22 it was his consistently superb bowling in the penultimate over that allowed Unadkat to reap the rewards of the pressure that had been built up. Of seamers who bowled 30 or more overs only Bhuvneshwar Kumar achieved a better economy rate which shows just how effective a bowler that Stokes is in this format.
Next year it is likely that Stokes will be available for the entirety of the tournament with England’s scheduled Test series against Pakistan taking place in late May. This means there is a very good chance that Stokes will break his own record at the auction and also could be the star attraction for the reinstated Chennai Super Kings. From a Durham point of view it is always disappointing to miss a player of Stokes’ class but no one can blame him from running with the unbelievable opportunity of wealth, exposure and development that the IPL brings. Stokes is the man who will be used by the ECB to sell tickets, and while his image takes up billboards it continues to serve as a remainder just how important the club is to cricket in this country and around the world.