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Cricket news - Stokes, Durham and the making of an "exceptional" player

Stokes - Always in the game

"Gosh Stokesy, what a legend!" Jon Lewis gueshes, joining the hysteria around Ben Stokes' leaping one-handed catch at the boundary to dismiss Andile Phehlukwayo at The Oval.

Lewis, currently serving as Sri Lanka's batting coach, is impressed by this classic World Cup moment, but by no means surprised. It was not the first time Stokes had made him utter words to such effect. A teenage Ben Stokes had left him similarly awestruck more than a decade ago after a washed-out game against Surrey.

"I handled the second team at Durham for about 4-5 years around 2006. We went to play Surrey seconds away and it rained all day. Some lads went to the gym, others idled around. He [Stokes] went into the squash courts and absolutely killed himself to win a squash match against Gordon Muchall, who was a very good squash player. Stokes almost killed himself to beat him. I thought to myself, 'Gosh this lad does not lose' He gave it everything he had," Lewis tells Cricbuzz.

Lewis, the former Essex opener who served Durham for 21 years including as head coach until December 2018, remembers a scrawny 14-year-old Stokes' first day in Chester-le-Street when club legend Geoff Cook came to him with a request. "He was about 14. I was the helping with a junior session. Geoff Cook, who was the academy coach at that time, asked me if I could probably feed the bowling machine for this young lad from Cumbria. Scotty Borthwick was there as well. I remember thinking... 'Oh he hits the ball bloody hard for such a little boy.'

"He looked very good but you don't get too carried away just because he plays the bowling machine well. But Geoff was very convinced that this lad was going to be a very good cricketer."

The signing of Stokes wasn't straightforward for Lewis or Cook. Given that the young boy was from Cumbria, a ceremonial county in the North West of England, he could head in two directions in search of first class cricket: He could go south to Lancashire as other Cumbria resident Liam Livingstone did, or go east to Durham.

"We worked very hard to get Stokesy. The academy director really pays close attention to players outside the region to rope young talents. John Windows [another Durham legend] was very influential then. But this was not like football, where we sign a youth contract. We are just offering them opportunities. If travel is difficult, we helped him out. He had to commute about two hours on not great roads. He would stay over a couple of times a week. We accommodated him. It was a great investment, eh?," Lewis chuckles.

Lewis's special treatment for Stokes wasn't restricted to his first few days with the County. The young left-handed all-rounder, along with Scott Borthwick, were identified as 'special talents' and accorded preferential treatments. "Geoff Cook had told me that there were a couple of players, irrespective of performances, who had to be get the focal points of the [second] team. Stokesy had to bat at four. He wasn't going to be asked to play at six or seven just because he was young.

"Stokesy and Borthwick were the two guys. We decided, 'okay let's play them irrespective of how it works for the team. In fact on his second team debut against Leicester, he didn't get to bat so he went and took a four-fer. He hadn't even bowled properly until that point because he had had a back injury. He then went out and got a 150 against Hampshire.

"There's a point where you realise that he not just a good cricketer, but an exceptional competitor. You realised he was a bit different.

"We are quite lucky that each county has a very good academy setup. They have pathways that have pros and cons. The pros being you identify young talent and then you can support them from the age of 13,14,15 and that includes physical support, educating them on gym and their physical development, support them when they get injured as well. The downside is we have too strict a pathway and players develop at different rates, some players develop at 16,17. You kind of ignore him because he didn't come through. You have to be open to the idea. We also got a little lucky with our Ben investment."

Having seen Stokes during his door kicking, locker-room punching days - a part of his personality that has been particularly hard to shrug off, Lewis resonates England captain Eoin Morgan's beliefs that Stokes will have matured post the Bristol incident and can truly go on to make this World Cup his own.

"He was outstanding (against South Africa) and typical in some way for Ben. He's been a little bit under the radar for the last six months, there's been a lot of talk about Buttler, Bairstow had a great IPL... Jofra obviously getting the headlines for very good reasons. All of a sudden, first game, big stage, Stokesy pulls that out! He had a great hit out as well. On another day, he would have stolen headlines for that as well. A very good 80. But geez, what a sensational catch.

"Think maybe when he was younger, he would have been craving attention a little bit more. But that England environment is hugely supportive of each other. They genuinely enjoy each other's success. I know Ben and Jos are very good mates. So if Jos gets the headlines, it won't be bothering Ben too much.

"In a way it was a lesson he's learnt the lesson on his own. You can have the conversation but you know it's dawning on him. Missing cricket is the worst thing in the world for him. He's done something stupid and that's the worst punishment for him. So even though he might do something similar, the penny will drop. Most of the best cricketers you know, if you put them in the right environment, they will work their way to the top."

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