HE is being called the Hero of Headingley — a rebel English cricketer who scored a monster century to help his country gobble an improbable one-wicket win over the old enemy, Australia, on Sunday to stay alive in the Ashes series.
Ben Stokes was the English hero as he scored 74 of the 76 runs that came from the last-wicket partnership — something as improbable in football as expecting the goalkeeper to save all five penalties in a shoot-out to help his team win the match 1-0.
Or an outfield player scoring from all five free-kick attempts in the last five minutes to help his team secure victory.
Well, what makes all this remarkable is that Ben is also a deeply-flawed firebrand professional, who is not the typical role model English cricketer.
Four times he was convicted of driving offences, and on the fifth occasion, was warned by a judge he could be imprisoned if he continued violating the traffic rules.
Then matters came to a head outside a Bristol pub one night in September 2017, when he was arrested after being caught on camera repeatedly punching some guys in an ugly street brawl.
After a full trial, Ben was cleared of affray, but England’s cricket authorities still charged him with bringing the game into disrepute, set up a commission to investigate him and he was ultimately fined £30 000 and suspended for eight games.
However, this year, Ben didn’t only return to the England cricket team, but was even promoted to the role of vice-captain.
And, in the World Cup final against New Zealand, he produced a man-of-the-match performance to help England force a tie, then batted in the Super Over as the hosts were crowned world champions for the first time in their history.
On Sunday, at Headingley in Leeds, he produced arguably the finest Test innings by a batsman under pressure in the history of the Ashes.
He somehow clobbered a magnificent century, including scoring 74 of the final 76 runs, with last man Jack Leach to help England power to an incredible one-wicket victory.
Now, just two years from the possibility of going to jail, Ben is the all-English hero because the authorities there found a way to deal with his waywardness and helped him, including psychologically, to cast away his demons.
The English cricket chiefs were brave enough to publicly tell Ben his conduct was unacceptable.
They were professional enough to charge him, they respected the value of neutrality and set up a commission to look into the issues that concerned them.
And, they implemented its findings not to punish Ben, but to whip him into line so that he could exorcise the demons that were holding back his career and affecting the image of his team and, by extension, the country he represented.
The English cricket bosses were also humane enough to help Ben confront his demons, deal with them, and come out of it all a better cricketer, and more importantly, a better man and proud representative of his country.
And today, thanks to a system that worked to perfection, Ben is a national hero and has just helped his country win the World Cup and somehow kept them alive in the Ashes with an innings from heaven. Now, some are even calling for him to be knighted — just months after he was facing the possibility of being jailed and turning into an England cricket outcast.
JUST LIKE BEN, THERE ARE A NUMBER OF FIERY REBEL GENIUSES AMONG OUR WARRIORS
Football, just like cricket, has always had its fair share of such rebellious and flawed characters.
That’s the reality of sport, and the ZIFA leaders believe there were many such characters among the Warriors during the 2019 AFCON finals in Egypt.
And, they blame these players for transforming the team camp in a fortress of chaos, a cathedral of mayhem and a theatre of madness.
A bastion of commotion, where the concentration shifted from trying to win matches, and by extension, the tournament, for the fans and the country, into a modern day El Dorado, where the quest was sorely about getting a fortune.
Where the interests of the nation, as represented by the fans, was overshadowed by the interests of making money.
And, the pride that comes with playing for the national team badge was replaced by the quest for a little fortune.
They claim greed replaced the purity of such a great sporting ambassadorial role, where doing well for your nation is worth more than any financial payment these players could ever get.
And, because of the ugly events in Egypt, we have seen a number of regular players — who usually form the foundation of the Warriors — being overlooked for the start of the World Cup qualifiers next week.
Yes, part of the chaos in Egypt went beyond the acceptable, and for every action, there should be a reaction.
After all, how is it possible to defend players who crashed to a four-goal mauling at the hands of a team they beat in its own backyard, in a game they were supposed to win to make history?
How do you suggest such players represent the be-all-and-end-all of the Warriors?
But, like their English cricket counterparts, the ZIFA officials should have been brave enough to come out and say that this and that player crossed the line in Egypt, and for now, they will not be considered for national duty.
They should have been professional enough to say that this and that player, because of the role they played in that chaos in Egypt, needed rehabilitation, for them to understand the value of representing one’s country.
And, until such a process is done, they will not be considered for national duty.
They should have told the players, whom they accuse of fanning chaos, of where they believe they messed it up, and tell them the truth about why they were left out, rather than spin all this as if it’s a decision made by the coach.
Healing starts with confronting the demons and providing a process for rehabilitation, the way the English cricket authorities did with Ben, rather than concealing ghosts the way our football leaders have done.
And, trying to pretend nothing is amiss with the exclusion of the players, that’s what is called denial, and if they didn’t know, it now means the difference between life and death in a world ravaged by HIV and AIDS.
There can’t be any healing if the ZIFA bosses try to sell the nation a dummy that no players were barred from selection because no one can suddenly believe Joey Antipas, of all people, will leave out someone like Danny Phiri.
The very player the same coach built his Chicken Inn team around to win the domestic championship, and in his place, call Tichaona Chipunza.
Or suggest any coach would have been brave enough to leave out George Chigova and Edmore Sibanda, and instead, go with Elvis Chipezeze, especially after the nightmare which saw him wilt in the heat of the moment against the DRC and make monumental blunders that cost his team, and country terribly.
By naming those whom they believe went beyond the acceptable in Egypt, ZIFA would not only have been helping themselves, but would also be helping the players for them to know their conduct was not something the authorities accepted.
For the players to know that, in the event they try to do it again, there could be consequences, including the possibility of being left out of the national team.
For both parties to clear the path to possibly sit down and come up with a process for rehabilitation, as what England did with Ben, and repair the broken bond of trust.
Because, the challenge is to tame that fiery rebel streak, and combine it with the genius to produce the explosive athlete, be it an English cricketer or a proud Warrior who can make a difference for his nation when push comes to shove.
That way, the national interests, as seen with the grand celebrations we have been witnessing in England after Ben’ heroics — both in the World Cup and the Ashes — will then be protected.
DURING SUCH TIMES, I ALWAYS THINK ABOUT A GUY CALLED PATRICK CRYNE
The distance between Leeds, where Ben performed his heroics on Sunday at Headingly and Barnsley is just 37km, like Harare and Norton.
Whenever football has pushed him into a corner, where I have to look for a unifying figure, a refreshing story, a man who defied the doubts of his community to find a way to bring everyone together, to forgive and value the proceeds of unity, I always think of a guy called Patrick Cryne.
He was born in Barnsley, grew up in the town supporting his hometown club before becoming the owner of the team.
His takeover came at a time Barnsley faced administration problems and possible collapse in 2003, but even then, there were many who doubted him.
But, he proved them wrong, and during his time in charge, Barnsley twice won promotion from League One, reached an FA Cup semi-final in 2008 and lifted the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in 2016.
Then, in September 2017, at around the time Ben was fighting outside a Bristol night club, he wrote an open letter to the fans, which touched me as much as it did many supporters.
“I am living on borrowed time. I live in pain, but living is better than the alternative.
Cancer is insidious, cruel and rapacious and I implore everyone to have regular checks to stop it gaining hold,’’ he wrote.
“Recent months have brought into focus the things that are important to me. I have spent a lot of my life pursuing the ultimately pointless when there were better things to do.
“My family have always been important to me, but I should have spent more time telling them so.
“I do now and it creates joyfulness in our relationships. Of course, my football club has been important too, and I am lucky that my family have shared my love of Barnsley FC.
“For much of the time since I became the club’s buyer of last resort, I allowed others to run the club, fearing that I did not know enough to win the respect and supporter of the ‘football people’.
“It is ironic, therefore, that we enjoyed one of our most successful periods when I did take up the mantle, ending in two successful visits to Wembley.
“Certainly, the whole club working as one was instrumental. I don’t know if we will ever repeat the sense of togetherness of that season, which extended also to the fans, their tolerance and incredible support.
“There are many things I wanted to achieve before my custodianship of our fabulous team ended at the hand of the Grim Reaper. Of course, I wanted to see us get back to the Premier League and make some enhancements to the iconic West Stand.
“Most people realise I was a reluctant custodian, but what has made it bearable, against the occasional cruelty of the Internet world is the kindness shown to me by so many fans on a personal basis.
“People are not shy in coming forward and telling me they appreciate my efforts, even if I have fallen short of their aspirations. I receive many letters and cards from fans who share with me their memories and best wishes.
“I do not expect to live to see the ultimate outcome, but I travel in hope.’’
Four months later, in January last year, he was gone, after finally losing his battle against cancer.
He didn’t live long enough to drive the 37km on Sunday to Leeds to witness a rebel-cricketer-transformed-into-an-English-hero perform the Miracle of Headingley.
But, the gift of unity he planted in his community and club, which — devastated by his death last year, was relegated into League One — saw Barnsley rally together last season, and in May this year, secure their place back in the Championship.
It’s such love, and unity, we badly need right now for the sake of our beloved Warriors, for the sake of our beloved national sport and, crucially, for the sake of our country, given football and these Warriors, mean a lot to this nation.
After all, to be a Warrior, or a Warriors’ fan is quite frustrating, incredibly exciting, uniquely special and remarkably fulfilling.