A cricketer’s appearance rarely, if ever, warrants analysis. But for one to look like they’ve dropped from heavyweight to middleweight status just over 50 days from a serious knee operation is cause for some consideration.
And it was a serious knee operation, by the way. For so long, Stokes had kept the state of his left knee as quiet as possible while his laboured movements and inability to fulfil bowling duties as an allrounder screamed the truth with every grimace. That included downplaying the surgery eventually administered by specialist Dr Andy Williams at the private Cromwell Hospital in southwest London at the end of November.
“It was a bit more than a ‘clear out’ as well,” Stokes revealed on Tuesday afternoon in Hyderabad, having leant on that description in the months leading up to the procedure. A bone spur was removed, while the meniscus was reinforced with stitches.
The reluctance to go under the knife came from an honest place. A sense of duty to England and, ultimately, trepidation. “Surgery is always the last option,” he said. “Surgeries can go very well, but they can also sometimes not go too well, and set people back even further, and potentially even end careers.”
It was fear that motivated Stokes to strip down to a physique head coach Brendon McCullum likened to a greyhound earlier this week. Once England’s ODI World Cup had ended prematurely at the group stages, Stokes set about a pre-op routine to shed mass. “Because obviously, the less weight you’re carrying, the less weight you’ve got going through your knee and, actually, the quicker your recovery is,” he explained. An England spokesperson posited Stokes has lost 8-10kg. That has been facilitated by lifestyle changes, such as cutting alcohol, and a whole lot of hard graft.
The logic proved sound. Following the operation, what began as weekly assessments with ECB medical staff morphed into once every two- or three-day appointments, given the acceleration of his recovery.
Days spent in the gym over Christmas and New Year were as much to bring the knee up to scratch as “fixing” the kinks in the rest of the body, which had previously been overburdened by overcompensating for the dodgy joint. All of which led neatly into the two-week training camp in the UAE before touching down in India.
“Once we got to Abu Dhabi it was a good time to be pressing things on a bit, and start pushing myself,” explained Stokes. “Seeing how I was reacting, how I was waking up each day, how I was getting through long hard sessions, three or four different things through the day.”
There were frustrating moments, too, particularly when it came to the actual cricket. Adjustments he made over the last couple of years to cover for his knee when batting, for instance, needed to be undone in the nets and sessions out in the middle.
“Subconsciously, I was sort of doing what I was doing before I had it [the operation] just because it’s almost like muscle memory to maybe not get into certain positions. But the more and more I batted, the more I found, actually, it’s way more comfortable now. I can do it. You know, it’s just come through training more and more.”
This has carried over into India, ahead of the first Test which begins on Thursday.
“I sort of don’t think about it, if that makes sense? And getting into this period before the game starts, you’re thinking about the game whereas the first couple of nets I had I was more like testing the waters, maybe not committing myself as much as I would do in a game.
“But that all comes from coming back from the surgery. Just testing the waters to see how everything is reacting and obviously now my mind is focused on the game. So now I don’t have those thoughts in my mind.”
By all accounts, Stokes is ahead of schedule and expects to play all five Tests. And on the cusp of his first India tour as captain, a man whose leadership involves deflecting praise onto others allowed himself a moment of pride.
“Throughout the whole process, it was chatting with the medical team, the surgeon himself. As long as I felt I could do my job to a certain extent, we were always pushing surgery back as long as we could.
“It’s been a long one, but something that I’m proud of myself and how hard that I’ve worked to get into this position.
“I know I’ve worked very hard to get myself into this condition. Hopefully it is something that will give me a little bit longer as we’re getting to that point – I’m 32 now, and sport and everything like that isn’t here forever. I want to play for England as long as I possibly can. The older you get, the harder you work.”
The bowling will take a little longer to get right. He will not send a delivery down on this tour – not even offspin. But over the course of the next couple of months in India, he hopes he can do the necessary work to eventually reprise his allrounder status in the upcoming English summer.
“As I said before, bowling is such an unnatural thing for the body to go through that it’s not going to be a case of right, I’m good now, straight back into bowling. Remember the last ball I bowled was actually in the Ashes at Lord’s. So my body is nowhere near ready to even be thinking about competitive bowling at the moment.
“But if I get to a stage in this tour where we can start building myself back up to bowling, then hopefully by the summer, that’s where I’ve earmarked as playing a full role as I want to be doing.”
Ultimately, the scale of Stokes’ recovery will reveal itself in this opening Test. Such is the competitive fire that burns within, only in the heat of the contest will he truly know how far he has come over the last two months. Whether putting a little extra behind a crouched sweep shot, hurtling after a ball headed for the boundary or suppressing the urge to get the ball in hand and change the course of a game. Or even during a prolonged stint in the dirt, which these tours have a habit of throwing up.
“I’ve done everything away from it that a match requires. I’d never put myself ahead of the team if I didn’t think I could go out and play at a certain level. I’d never be that selfish to think of myself not performing at a certain level and what that could do to the team.
“I’ve done everything I needed to do to say, ‘yes I’m ready to go and play a Test match for England’. I’ll just have to see. I might have some long days in the field but I’m ready.”
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo