In another world, Ben Stokes was due to be playing golf this week.
When he was still a former member of England’s one-day team, Stokes was scheduled to be part of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, beginning on Thursday.
Instead, with his one-day retirement over, Stokes was teeing off on the New Zealand bowling attack, smashing 182 to break the record for the highest score by an England batter in an ODI.
“I was a bit sour about that,” said Stokes of missing the PGA. “I basically played golf today, so I was alright.”
Underneath the stands at The Oval, Stokes was sitting in the same sports hall where less than two months ago he had swerved a pack of journalists over his plans for the months following the Ashes.
The day before the final Test against Australia, Stokes said he was not going to make himself available for the World Cup and would instead be using the time to fix his left knee.
It was all a ruse. Even then, Stokes knew the wheels were in motion for his 50-over comeback in time for the defence of England’s world title in India in October and November.
There was no hint of the deception, perhaps unsurprising when you consider the ice-cold execution of high-stakes run chases in the 50-over and 20-over World Cup finals of 2019 and 2022 respectively, or the chips-all-in Ashes heroics at Headingley. Stokes’ poker face was perfect.
“It was, wasn’t it?” he said. “I’d been asked a lot about my knee over a long period of time. I knew that I’d be playing in these games and potentially the World Cup. I said that to put you all off the radar.”
The troublesome knee means England have to accept Stokes as a batter, rather than an all-action all-rounder.
But his spectacular hitting at The Oval was affirmation, if it was needed, of why captain Jos Buttler wants Stokes in India.
And perhaps the sole focus on his batting, rather than being preoccupied with getting his knee in a place from where he can perform a role as a bowler, makes Stokes an even more dangerous prospect than before.
This was only the 10th time in a 108-match ODI career that Stokes has occupied the number four spot in the England batting order. With the extra responsibility, he produced the second-highest score by a batter at four or lower in the history of men’s ODIs, only bettered by a legendary 189 not out by the great West Indian Viv Richards against England at Old Trafford in 1984.
“It’s the first time I’ve been clear in my mind that is the one thing I can focus on,” said Stokes.
“Over the past 18 months every day has been: ‘Will I bowl? Will I not bowl?’ I know I can just focus on the batting. That’s my thing for the team now. Having that clarity in my head helps.”
That clarity helped Stokes make his fastest ODI century, from 76 balls, and first since 2017. He clubbed 15 fours and nine sixes in his 124-ball stay, helping England to 368 all out and an eventual victory by 181 runs for a 2-1 series lead.
Fittingly, the record-breaking performance came against New Zealand, the country of his birth and the opponents for his finest hour in a one-dayer – the man-of-the-match performance in the World Cup final four years ago.
There were even nods to that thrilling day at Lord’s. Back then, an outrageous slice of luck saw Martin Guptill’s throw from the deep ricochet of Stokes’ bat for four overthrows. On Wednesday, one return from Henry Nicholls hit Stokes as he made his ground at the non-striker’s end.
In the final, Stokes could have been caught at long-on, only for Trent Boult to tread on the boundary sponge. At The Oval, Boult was in the same fielding position, this time watching the ball sail over his head for the maximum that took Stokes past the previous England best, 180 by Jason Roy against Australia in 2018.
New Zealand could be forgiven for being thoroughly sick of the sight of the man who could have played in a Black Cap rather than with Three Lions on his chest, but coach Gary Stead was gracious enough to say he enjoys watching Stokes bat.
“I’d rather he gets his runs now than on 5 October,” said Stead, referring to the World Cup opener between the two sides in Ahmedabad next month.
It may be wishful thinking both from New Zealand and the rest of the teams ready to do battle in India.
“It’s obviously been a while since playing this format. It’s not as easy as it sounds to just come back and start playing again,” said Stokes.
“It’s just familiarising myself again with the ebbs and flows of 50-over cricket and it’s something I think I did quite well today.”
Stokes may have made himself available to play one-day internationals, but it was only by producing a thoroughly ‘Stokesian’ performance that he could show he really had returned.
Now, the whole world knows that Ben Stokes is back. For England, that means another World Cup where anything is possible.