BEN STOKES, THANKS to Twitter, learned that he was worth Rs 14.5 crore in the IPL on the morning of the player auction. That perhaps meant little or nothing to him until, thanks to Google this time, he taught himself to count in the Indian numbering system.
“I wasn’t sure how much a crore was; people were tweeting stuff. It was complete carnage,” the England all-rounder said to a British daily. At this point of time, day break in England (Stokes claims to have set an alarm to tune in), he was told that the sum (£1.74 million in his currency) bid by Sanjiv Goenka, owner of Rising Pune Supergiants (RPS), had just made him the most expensive international player in the history of IPL.
“I’m struggling to put it into words,” Stokes then said. “I guess having more than one team wanting me was probably the best position to be in.” Few cricketers had ever been better placed. Despite Stokes’ base price of Rs 2 crore—set by the player himself, the joint highest in this auction along with Ishant Sharma, who incidentally went unsold—five out of the eight bidding teams were ready to empty their wallets for him.
Auctioneer Richard Madley’s gavel stayed up as Royal Challengers Bangalore and Mumbai Indians wrestled the all-rounder’s price up to Rs 5 crore, at which point RCB backed off. But Nita Ambani, owner of MI, stayed firm, now getting into a bidding tussle with Delhi Daredevils—hiking Stokes’ worth to Rs 10.5 crore. The Ambanis finally shrugged when Sunrisers Hyderabad established that they were willing to fork out Rs 14 crore. But that’s when Goenka—with coach Stephen Fleming’s assurance—raised his paddle and Madley dropped his hammer.
“To be honest, I was willing to spend as much as Rs 15 crore for Stokes, so he came within our budget,” Goenka told The Telegraph after the auction. “We were lacking a genuine fast bowling all-rounder and, for us, he was the man to get.” In order to do that, RPS released 11 players from their 2016 roster, freeing up funds worth Rs 16.9 crore. Nearly 86 per cent of the purse was spent in acquiring Stokes; the remaining 14 per cent purchased eight other players. To understand why this amount was spent on one player for his maiden IPL season, one must first realise that the Pune franchise is in its final IPL season.
“Our time to make a mark is limited,” said Goenka. RPS, along with Gujarat Lions, were invited to the IPL in 2016 as temporary replacements for Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals, franchises suspended by the BCCI for two years. While the Lions went on to top the table in their maiden season, RPS finished second to last. This, despite being led by two-time IPL winner and then Indian captain, MS Dhoni.
Some of the heavyweights in Dhoni’s 2016 squad included Steven Smith, Faf du Plessis, Kevin Pietersen as well as India’s R Ashwin and Ajinkya Rahane. The team had the right fuel to go the distance, yet it never did catch fire. For instance, the top scorer for RPS, Rahane with 480 runs, ranked seventh on the season’s list. The next highest scorer for Pune, Dhoni with 280 runs, was only the 21st best batsman in the league.
Here’s the clinching statistic. Pune’s entire roster of 23 players scored a total of 1,962 runs in the season. Compare that to Bangalore’s top three (Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and KL Rahul), who alone accumulated 2,057 runs. That’s 95 runs more than all of Pune. Relatively speaking, RPS’s batting was better than their bowling. The fact that Adam Zampa, Australia’s wonderful leggie, played just six matches and still finished as their top wicket-taker with 12 scalps should give you a clue.
Radical changes, then, were the need of the hour. Two days before the auction, it was announced that Dhoni would no longer captain Pune in the final season. Steven Smith, an incumbent national captain, will. Also, Ishant, Irfan Pathan and Thisara Perera—the team’s first choice pace attack—were released from the roster (all three staying unsold at the auction). And in came Stokes, a cure for more than just bowling woes.
In 2016, Stokes scored 904 runs in Test cricket—including a devastating 258 in Cape Town at the beginning of the year and an assured 128 in Rajkot at the end of it. Remarkable for a man who bats at number seven. He also brought up his maiden ODI century in October. Not just that. Stokes also took a total of 52 international wickets last year, three of them in a match-winning burst against New Zealand in the semi-final of the World T20.
Then came the final, where, having been saddled with the task of bowling the last over of the match and defending 19 runs to win the World T20 for England, Stokes was smacked for four consecutive sixes by Carlos Brathwaite, effecting a most ludicrous turnaround for champions West Indies. For all his lion-hearted performances, that moment became the defining image of his year and career. Stokes squatting on the Eden Gardens wicket, eyes pressed shut in misery.
“It was like the whole world had come down on me,” Stokes later said. “I didn’t want to get back up.” Until he was forced to by another ‘carnage’, opening those pupils wide to count fantastic sums of Indian money.