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Indian Premier League 2023

The England Test captain isn’t owned by English cricket, he belongs to all of it

Ben Stokes, the England captain, at the IPL
Phil Walker by Phil Walker
@Phil_Wisden 4 minute read

Ahead of Ben Stokes’ first campaign at Chennai Super Kings, Wisden Criket Monthly editor-in-chief Phil Walker looks at the changing dynamic between England’s superstars and the IPL.

Ben Stokes has only gone alright in the IPL, though how much this stings is another matter. When the time comes to hang up his jockstrap, those eight wickets and HS of 45 in IPL11 probably won’t take up too much of the obit. Still, it will rankle. He’s underperformed and he knows it.

There have been moments, of course – a couple of spectacular tons, a few airborne joke-grabs with the claw – but following his first good hit in 2017, when Stokes claimed the MVP for the now-deflated Rising Pune Supergiants, he’s tended to arrive at the IPL nursing a mixture of injury, grief, and grievance.


Since that messy sophomore year, played out in the shadow of an impending court case and at a cost to Rajasthan Royals of US$10k per run, he’s played 17 matches across three seasons, for eight wickets and two scores north of fifty. Not that such numbers leave a dent on the Stokes label. With Jos Buttler ensconced at Rajasthan, he was still the biggest draw card from this year’s overseas contingent.

It feels right that he’s ended up at Chennai Super Kings. (Since you’re wondering, and you are: US$1.9m.) They seem made for each other. For the organisation, Stokes is in this perfect moment, a global face at the peak of his career, with enough autonomy over what’s left of it to front CSK’s expansionist cause for the next few years. While for Stokes, he walks into a monster: the most cocksure franchise out there, a win-now behemoth, nine-times a finalist, and a brand so impermeable that it can shrug off a two-year ban for a corruption scandal and return more watertight than ever.

He rejoins MS Dhoni, who was Stokes’ skipper at Pune during CSK’s suspension, and his old pal Moeen. It’s understood that Dhoni personally asked for him, and that he envisions Stokes taking over as CSK captain in due course. “That call is for Dhoni to take,” a CSK mandarin told the press. “Our role as always ends with assembling the team that Dhoni asks for.”

CSK’s identity has always been bound up in the calibre of their overseas’. Matthew Hayden, Faf du Plessis, Dwayne Bravo, Michael Hussey – all are weaved into the story, as was Andrew Flintoff, way back in 2009, rolled out as the slightly bashful, past-his-peak symbol of the tournament’s dazzling largesse. Flintoff didn’t do much in that yellow kit beyond the wearing of it, but that was enough: there he was, this property of England, the once-darling of the greybeards, rocking up with KP to parade the future.

Stokes represents the completion of that arc. For a while now, English cricketers have been getting stuck right in to the IPL. Denuded of any real authority over their biggest stars, the ECB gave up that fight long ago. But never before has the England Test captain lined up for the start of an IPL season. You might reasonably want to add here that they haven’t been good enough. But it’s not quite that simple. Joe Root, when he had the job, accepted the trade-off – the “sacrifice”, as he put it to me – and shelved his 20-over game for a few years. Now he’s no longer in charge, he goes straight into the Royals franchise.

No one disputes the sacrifices Stokes has made for English cricket nor his commitment to the day job. And even if there wasn’t mounds of evidence everywhere, such are the results under his leadership that Stokes would be untouchable anyway, free to occupy that rarest of places for an England captain, above the fray, beyond reproval. And just to be sure, he says he’ll leave the tournament early, irrespective of how well CSK are going, to prepare in good time for the Ireland Test on June 1. There aren’t many tricks he misses.

On the surface then, all appears well. The #YelloveFaithful content machine, all cranked up for Stokes’ third act, has spent the past week posting clips of him doing unspeakable things to net bowlers. Hours out from the pipe opener on Friday night against reigning champions Gujarat Titans, we’ve breathlessly arrived at the ‘nothing is impossible’ stage.

The kink in the swing lies with his dodgy left knee, a longstanding structural problem with its own sub-department at ECB HQ. We are told that he’s had a cortisone injection to reduce the inflammation that stopped him from bowling on England’s tour of New Zealand, with Hussey, CSK’s batting coach, telling ESPNcricinfo that he’ll be playing initially as a batter. “The bowling might be wait and see. I know he had his first very light bowl [last Sunday] since he had his injections in his knee.”

All this talk of painkilling injections and managing problems will alert the attentions of a certain kind of English sceptic, of the kind which never much cared for this whole IPL business and likely never will. Suddenly, they too will be watching.

This weekend marks two months before the start of the international summer. The noises coming out of the CSK camp – whose physios are reportedly in daily dialogue with the ECB’s own twitchy scrubs – are jauntily positive, as they have to be, and so we go with that. Stokes is used to keeping his footing on very fine lines. His career is a monument to it. But should the worst happen and his knee buckles doing something outlandish in the canary yellow then all those old tensions, which have never fully dissipated, will come flooding back. Not that it would shift the dial one iota. The England Test captain isn’t owned by English cricket. He belongs to all of it.

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