In August last year, England cricketer Ben Stokes stood with head back and eyes closed as he was found not guilty of affray in a Bristol court. On Sunday, Stokes stood in a similar pose with his head back and his eyes closed. But now he was roaring in triumph having pretty much single-handedly won the third Ashes Test match for England against the old enemy Australia.
The vice-captain’s unbeaten score of 135 not out at Headingley has been described as the greatest Test innings ever. What a difference a year makes.
In September 2017, Stokes was captured on video brawling outside a Bristol nightclub, hours after an England cricket match. Although, as emerged in the subsequent trial, he stepped in to protect a gay couple from homophobic abuse, the video footage of the altercation, in which two men were injured, was hardly edifying.
He was dropped for the 2017-18 Ashes series in Australia and England were roundly beaten without him. His suspension from international cricket and his criminal trial was the subject of much negative media coverage.
Fast forward two years and Stokes’ ability to deal with pressure in the closing stages of critical games first “led” England to victory in the cricket World Cup final. Then, for the second time this summer, Stokes dragged England to an unlikely victory – this time in a crucial Ashes Test match, when England needed to win to stay in the five-match series and all seemed lost.
Stokes demonstrated total focus in the closing stages, not communicating with those around him and immersed in his role and responsibility. He didn’t even celebrate reaching 100 runs by raising his bat and taking off his helmet in the traditional way.
When individuals are faced with crucial or close fought situations, performance is often impaired. This can directly affect their ability to think clearly under pressure. Athletes who thrive under stressful situations are able to cope with the demands of the event both psychologically and physiologically and are likely to be able to perform heroically. It is Stokes’ superior functioning under extreme pressure that sets him apart as a “superathlete”.
Stokes’ exploits have captured the public imagination and the England cricketer is now widely hailed as a hero – with the couple that he protected two years ago calling for a knighthood. His triumphant innings and the ability to change the fortune of the nation’s cricket team has been compared to other great feats in the history of cricket, particularly that of Sir Ian Botham on the same ground in 1981.
Much as with Stokes’ innings, Botham’s came when the country was in a state of upheaval, with the British economy in crisis and riots in many cities exposing the myth of social cohesion. In 2019, the UK faces the Brexit crisis, which has caused deep divisions in society. At times like these, the British public is badly in need of a sporting hero and a spectacle to capture public attention and to take minds off other issues. Stokes, and Botham before him, are such heroes.
Thanks to Botham, the 1981 Ashes Test has come to be known as The Miracle of Headingley. It has passed into mythical status and all other cricketing exploits tend to be compared to Botham’s triumph in Leeds. Such stories are told and retold until they become ingrained in society, reinforcing notions of national identity. The media, in particular, highlight elements of sporting stories that match earlier heroic performances. Links between Stokes and Botham have been quickly made.
Holding out for a hero
Human beings rely on stories to understand the world around them and hero narratives are particularly important in shaping our identity. In a difficult political and economic time, Stokes’ innings provides a unifying force that offers hope when a country is faced with challenges both on and off the pitch.
His never-say-die attitude and refusal to give up will be held up as a symbol of English national identity. Yet the hero narrative that has been built around him is not unique to England but is a common one that can be found in many societies. Indeed, a similar story has been built around Australian rival batter Steve Smith, who returned from the disgrace of a one-year ban after being involved in a cheating scandal in South Africa in 2017 and has also triumphed for his team during the Ashes series.
Stokes’ career follows a classic “heroic” narrative arc. He made a stellar start, smashing the fastest-ever century at Lords in 2015 and thrilling crowds during England’s tour of South Africa the following year with the fastest-ever double century by an English player.
Then the Bristol nightclub incident, after which he was cast out and shunned. He missed England’s disastrous Ashes tour to Australia in 2017/18, when his team’s five-nil loss was partly blamed to his absence. Now he has returned – and should England go on to win the Ashes, it may be to more glory than almost any English cricketer before him.
But would this story be as emotive if Stokes had not gone through his trials? It is in his suffering and redemption that we find reassurance. If he can return triumphantly from the depths of dispair, then so can others. At Headingley, he saved the England cricket team – but as a hero he provides hope that others can overcome their own hardships and find their own version of salvation.
Sport relies upon these tales of heroic deeds to create excitement and provide means of escape from “reality” for many. But it is only when the hero has overcome adversity that the narrative truly resonates. When this pattern is accompanied by seemingly superhuman feats, we raise these heroes even higher than others. As a result, this match will forever be remembered for Stokes’ deeds rather than the combined work of his England teammates.
This opinion piece authored by Institute Associate Dr Keith Parry and Dr Emma Kavanagh (Bournemouth University) was first published with full links on The Conversation (opens in a new window).