Ben Stokes pondered the enticing prospect of defeating Australia to reach a World Cup final on Tuesday and summed up perfectly just how much it would mean to England.
‘Beating them is that touch better than any other team,’ said England’s restored talisman. ‘Losing to them at Lord’s was massively disappointing so I think there will be a bit of redemption for that, knowing we have the chance to beat them and reach that final.’
He used the word redemption in terms of this World Cup but it could easily have been Stokes’ way of describing the unfinished business he has against England’s great rivals.
The incident at Bristol two years ago that cast such a cloud over Stokes meant he missed the last Ashes and he was also absent through injury when England defeated Australia 5-0 in last year’s one-day series. Now he is making up for lost time.
Stokes has been brilliant in this World Cup where he has shown the same maturity on the field as he has displayed off it in clearly learning from the brawl that cost him so dear. He is back on the road to that redemption and again the heartbeat of this England team.
They stuck by him through the bad times and he has repaid their faith in this most important of all tournaments by averaging in excess of 50 with the bat and under 30 with the ball. Not that Stokes, he insists, is being driven by the need to prove a point.
‘What happened two years ago opened my eyes to a lot of things but I don’t have to prove anything to anyone,’ said Stokes as England prepared at Edgbaston for Thursday’s seismic semi-final. ‘It’s just about showing I can deliver on the big stage.
‘Winning is the most important thing and if you can help the team out with an individual performance that’s all that counts. People can say good things or bad things but it won’t bother me.’
Now it is all about trying to beat Australia on Thursday when perhaps the most hostile reception yet at England’s most patriotic ground awaits the two opposing players on their own road to redemption in Steve Smith and David Warner.
The pair missed a year’s cricket for very different reasons to Stokes but perhaps he has more empathy than most in England for what they went through in the cheating scandal that cast such a cloud over the Australian game.
‘I’ve been to Australia and it’s just non-stop,’ said Stokes of the hostile receptions that invariably greet England on their Ashes visits. ‘So I have huge respect for them for performing like they have, coming back and being able to block all that out.
‘I sit with Eoin Morgan on this one. It’s up to the crowds whether they boo them. But respect to them for dealing with on-field pressures and the crowds while still delivering.’
It was after that defeat by Australia in the group stages, when England seemed to be crashing out of the tournament they have worked so hard for, that Stokes issued something of a rallying cry by bristling and saying “this is our World Cup”. The message has been reinforced since by the victories over India and New Zealand that brought them here.
‘I can see how that came across,’ Stokes says now. ‘But what I meant was people will say “they need to do this or that” when things don’t go well and I felt “this is our World Cup” as players. This is a different team to those who have gone before us.
‘We know how we want to play. It’s our team. We know what works and we know what makes us successful. We’re not going to change on the back of a couple of disappointing results.
‘When our careers end we will be able to say we played with the world’s best and got to No 1 in the rankings but more importantly we will be able to say we played with a good bunch of people. I’m not sure so many other teams have been able to say that.
‘I believe this England team is the best at what they do. We’re trying to build a path for many years to come, this is what England stand for and how we want to play.’
Stokes has been doing it in his new, more responsible way in this World Cup and has the best economy rate of the England attack at 4.65 runs per over. ‘The thing I’ve been most pleased with is my bowling,’ he said. ‘I had a chat with Morgs and a few others about my role because I’ve sometimes put too much pressure on myself to influence the game.
‘We spoke about me not trying to take a wicket every ball. Now we have a clear plan of me trying to go at five or six runs an over and I might get a wicket trying to do that. That’s helped the team more. It’s probably where I have let the team down. Taking the pressure off myself and keeping it simple is why it’s gone better.’
Stokes’ batting has brought four World Cup scores of 75 plus. ‘I just think I’ve gained confidence from being in different situations over the last four years. I have to rebuild or just get on with it. It’s literally that. So being exposed to situations has helped that.’
Perhaps, though, it is what Stokes did at the start of this World Cup, that wonder catch against South Africa, that lingers longest in the memory.
‘I had absolutely no idea how big that would be,’ he said. ‘In the days after I kept on getting sent videos of kids re-enacting it. That’s what World Cups can do, they can capture the imagination. The feeling at the time was good but seeing kids doing it in the back garden, that’s even better.’
Nothing will capture the imagination more than victory on Thursday to set up England’s first World Cup final in 27 years. ‘It’s my biggest game yet,’ added Stokes, well advanced on that road to redemption.