Coming into Sunday's clash against the Mumbai Indians, Ben Stokes had managed just 110 runs from 103 balls in IPL 2020. He hadn't hit a single six in the tournament and was struggling for the timing. If Shane Warne, the Rajasthan Royals' mentor, had his way, Stokes would have been batting at No. 4.
The Royals though decided to stick with Stokes as opener. The move finally paid dividends as he made a 196-run chase, against possibly the best bowling attack in the tournament, look like a canter. Their best batsman, Jos Buttler, wasn't even needed.
During his unbeaten 107 off 60 balls, Stokes hit 14 fours and three sixes, and doubled his run-rally for the tournament in just one knock. But before the madness, there was some method to his innings.
So far, bowlers had kept Stokes quiet by hitting the hard lengths at the stumps or just outside off, thereby not allowing him any room. Trent Boult too had a similar plan. Except, Stokes had a ready counter. He defended Boult's first ball bowled, a length delivery on the stumps, but the moment he drifted, Stokes punished him. Boult kept attacking the stumps but the length was too full. Stokes, meanwhile, also started creating room for himself by moving towards the leg side.
Later in that over, he backed away, even as Boult followed him and presented the full face of the bat. Whether it was the confidence in his shot, or a streak of arrogance that every maverick carries, or just a sign frustration about how his tournament had gone till then, Stokes didn't bother looking at the result after hitting the ball. By the time the ball reached the boundary line, he was gearing up for the next ball. No fist-bump with his partner at the other end, no customary gardening on the pitch. Nothing.
Initially, he looked more focused on the timing than power. That isn't to say the timing didn't elude him at all. He chipped one over Boult's head that the chasing mid-off and mid-on fielders couldn't get to even though Stokes hadn't middled it. Off the last ball of that over, he again backed away and smashed one through covers. With 16 off six balls, with the help of four boundaries, Stokes was off.
One reason to prompt the Royals to open with Stokes could have been his not-so-good record against spin. Since 2018, he had averaged 18.76 and struck at 114.55 against spin. But here two things worked in his favour. Firstly, he was already 20 off nine balls when spin was introduced. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, both Mumbai Indians spinners - Krunal Pandya, the left-arm orthodox, and Rahul Chahar, the legspinner - were bringing the ball in to Stokes, therefore, making it easier for him to line them up.
The Mumbai Indians ensured both Pandya and Chahar bowled their overs with the longer boundary on Stokes' leg side. But it hardly mattered as he slog-swept Chahar over deep midwicket for his first six off the tournament. He also peppered the shorter boundary by using reverse sweep to great effect against both against Krunal and Chahar.
The way Stokes was going also allowed Sanju Samson to get his eye in. With the Royals needing 89 from 48 balls, the madness began. In the next four overs, Stokes and Samson plundered 65 runs, hitting a combined seven fours and three sixes to bring the equation down to a run-a-ball 24.
"I am a bit taken aback by why it has taken me so long to get into the tournament for the team. I would have preferred to get this form two-three games ago when we weren't relying on other results to get us through to the qualifiers." Stokes at the post-match presentation
The dew meant the ball was also coming on to the bat much better than it did in the first innings. Only when the bowlers really dug it into the pitch, it caused some difficulty. That, however, was offset by a couple of edgy fours Stokes got through the third man region.
"It was sort of bittersweet, to be honest," Stokes said at the post-match presentation. "I am a bit taken aback by why it has taken me so long to get into the tournament for the team. I would have preferred to get this form two-three games ago when we weren't relying on other results to get us through to the qualifiers. But it's always nice to get back into form. But yeah, we are relying on a few other results at the moment. So a bit of bittersweet."
But how did he turn it around?
"The training yesterday [Saturday] was the best I have had for the time I have been here. So I came into this game with a bit more confidence than the other games. It was nice to spend some time out in the middle and finish the game off."
Later, when Samson asked him on iplt20.com how he dealt with the ups and downs he has faced as a cricketer in the last couple of years, Stokes said: "Outside noise can affect people in different ways. When I was younger, it affected me. It took me a while to understand that outside noise isn't what matters. It's all about what's within the team and the people who have an influence on you at a certain time in your career. I found the backing from everybody in the [Royals] franchise in the last three years.
"I know that I haven't delivered on the expectations but having the backing from the people that matter in this franchise is really the thing that I sort of pride everything on. So it was good to return a little bit of faith tonight."