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Ben Stokes named BBC Sports Personality of the Year

It was a hat trick of wins for English cricket at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year awards on Sunday evening in Aberdeen. The World Cup-winning squad were crowned Team of the Year while Jos Buttler’s run out of Martin Guptill in the final at Lord’s was voted the Greatest Sporting Moment of the Year. And then the big one: Ben Stokes became the first cricketer to win the main Sports Personality of the Year award since Andrew Flintoff in 2005. For a sport not always front and center in the national consciousness, it was quite an evening.

The main award voted on by the public, is given to the athlete whose performances most captured the attention of that very public during the year. Previous winners have included Andy Murray, Jonny Wilkinson, and Steve Redgrave. This year, Stokes finished ahead of Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton and athlete Dina Asher-Smith, who were second and third respectively. He is just the fifth cricketer to win the award, following in the footsteps of Flintoff, Sir Ian Botham, David Steele, and Jim Laker.

It was no surprise. Stokes has had a fine year. He played a crucial innings in England’s World Cup victory at Lord’s in July, hauling them to a tie in normal time before helping them to a Super Over total that proved just out of New Zealand’s reach. Then a little over a month later, he played one of the great modern-day Test innings against Australia at Headingley, scoring an unbeaten hundred to guide England to a victory they had no right to achieve. Two transformative innings, for Stokes and the sport.

Considering the Sports Personality of the Year is essentially a popularity contest, Stokes’ victory says much about the impact he has made on the sporting landscape this summer. It has been clear for a while that he has been catapulted into a spotlight rarely occupied by cricketers in this country. People with little understanding of, or interest in, the game know of Ben Stokes. He has even appeared on breakfast TV a number of times. This award is further proof that Stokes has gone mainstream.

The nuts and bolts of his cricketing talents have obviously played a part. But this summer, Stokes did more than just prove he could bat and bowl well. England have had, and do have, many cricketers with those skills. This summer, there was something extra. Stokes dragged England to two of their most famous ever victories and in high-stakes games to boot. That’s why he has reached wider popularity. There is nothing the English public loves more than a winner.

It is also clear that Stokes has qualities that resonate with people. His never say die attitude, epitomized at both Lord’s and Headingley, for instance. It is clear that his willingness to do the hard yards connects with a sporting public that has always trusted graft and determination far more than flamboyance and genius. It is clear that people like the humbleness and work ethic. With his north-east accent and his down to earth nature, he comes across as “one of us” rather than as “one of them”.

And perhaps just as important, people like the team before self attitude that Stokes displays. “There are so many people to thank when you win something like this,” Stokes said when collecting the award. “It is an individual award but I play in a team sport and the best thing about that is you get to spend special moments with teammates, backroom staff and management. I’m up here receiving this award but I’m not just up here by myself. Without the efforts that you (the team) put in this summer, I wouldn’t be up here. Thank you so much.”

Things have certainly changed since the incident outside a Bristol nightclub in 2017 when Stokes’ world came crashing down. Vilified as yet another wayward, unprofessional sports star who had let the country down through alcohol and violence, those were dark days and months. It was a crossroads, no doubt. A career in the balance. Nobody knew then whether it would be the making of him as a cricketer or the ending of him as one. So far, it has conclusively been the former.

Although Bristol will always be a footnote in his career whether he likes it or not, Stokes has emerged from all that now. He has had plenty of support, from his teammates, his agent Neil Fairbrother, and his family. Stokes himself has taken his game to a new level over the past two years, driven on by a ferocious work ethic. And as this summer has proved, success soon makes people forgive and forget. Being named Sports Personality of the Year is the culmination of an impressive two-year turnaround.

More generally, a total of three awards was a good night for English cricket. It ensures more column inches, more coverage online, more mentions on social media for a game which needs as much exposure as it can get. After all, the fight for the attention of a new generation goes on. This summer was a step in the right direction but there is plenty more to do. At least in that fight, the ECB has a trump card in Ben Stokes, a player who has made his way into the public’s hearts. These days, not many English cricketers do that.

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