Sportsmen are often painted as modern-day gladiators, the cut and thrust of their deeds entertaining the masses. For those at the centre of it all, it can be life-affirming stuff. But sometimes it means more.
When Ben Stokes took the final three wickets in the rousing finale of the Second Test in Cape Town in January 2020, gladiator and crowd - at least those cheering for England - were as one. Social media was awash with videos of celebration as Ollie Pope took the winning catch. Yet the day's arresting image was of Stokes. Game won and memories secured, he turned to the camera, raised his left hand and bent his middle finger - a gesture to his father, who had come on tour to watch him, but now lay in a Johannesburg hospital, having suffered a stroke shortly before Christmas.
Gerard Stokes - "Ged" to most - a former rugby league player and coach who had once chosen to lose most of his finger rather than undergo an operation that would have delayed his return to action, had recovered enough to follow the game on TV. And he was beaming just as brightly when his son hit 120 to help win the next Test, at Port Elizabeth. "Ben knows how much joy Gerard got from watching him play," said his mum, Deborah. "At Cape Town, I thought that every run, every wicket, every catch was for his dad."
The series finished in Johannesburg, where Stokes was again able to visit him, as well as contribute to a third and final victory. Far from failing to live up to his performances in 2019, he was sustaining them - despite issues beyond his control. For now, though, the good news was that his dad was well enough to travel back home to New Zealand, where he could convalesce among friends and family. Stokes could look ahead to an English summer, a T20 World Cup at the end of the year, and regular updates that dad was making good progress.
Coronavirus turned the world upside down and, when England resumed, behind closed doors in July, Stokes faced extra responsibility: with Joe Root on paternity leave, he was captain for the First Test against West Indies. England lost by four wickets but, back in the ranks, Stokes made a patient 176 in the first innings of the Second Test in Manchester, then a quickfire unbeaten 78 in the second, when he opened the batting, proving there was little he couldn't do on the cricket field. Tireless spells of bouncers from round the wicket helped square the series, then claim the Wisden Trophy. By now, he had overtaken West Indies captain Jason Holder as the ICC's top-ranked Test all-rounder.
Off the field, things were less rosy. Ged had been diagnosed with brain cancer; by the middle of the summer, he knew it was terminal. The last thing Ben wanted was to leave his team-mates after only one Test against Pakistan. But family came first: after helping set up victory with two important wickets again in Manchester, he flew to New Zealand.
"I knew he would come without any prompting," said Deborah. "It was the best thing for him, because it allowed him to spend real quality time with his dad. They had a ball. I told him this would be the most important time he would ever have with his dad, and that proved the case."
In seven Tests in 2020, Stokes averaged 58 with the bat, having scored more runs (641) than anyone in the world, and 18 with the ball. He had already become only the second England player to win this award, after Andrew Flintoff; now, he is the third of any nationality, after Virender Sehwag and Virat Kohli, to win it in successive years. All the while, his mind could justifiably have been elsewhere.
"Once you get out on the field and into the competition, that is where all your focus is at, and that is where I enjoy my work most," he said. "Every now and again, you will have thoughts about other things, but being on a cricket field, in whites or colours, is one of the happy places I have."
It was a wrench for Stokes to leave New Zealand and return to action at a rescheduled Indian Premier League in October, but a 59-ball century for Rajasthan Royals against Mumbai Indians showed his skills remained sharp. And his appearance in a 3-0 T20 victory in South Africa meant that, across two international formats in 2020, he had won five series out of five.
On December 8, with the England squad preparing to fly home early from South Africa because of another Covid scare, news arrived that his father had passed away. Ben had spent the previous two years winning more than anyone could have imagined. In the end, he lost the greatest supporter he ever had.