Fraternising with the enemy may be frowned upon in some sporting circles but England’s Ben Stokes admits he was happy to take tips from Australia captain Steve Smith during the Indian Premier League.
Come November 23 at the Gabba the pair will be on opposite sides of cricket’s oldest rivalry, competing in the first Test of the Ashes, but for much of the last six weeks they have been sharing the Rising Pune Supergiant’s dressing room.
Stokes was named the competition’s most valuable player after scoring 316 runs and taking 12 wickets for the eventual runners-up, but was happy to accept advice from an unlikely Antipodean ally in the nets.
“Once you get in the same team together you obviously want the same goal, which is to win, and if a guy wants to improve on something and another guy has a tip that can help they are obviously going to share that with you,” said Stokes, England’s Test vice-captain.
“I remember doing a batting session with some power hitting towards the end where the guy who I will actually be playing against in the Ashes (Smith) was helping me, which is something that you would never be able to fathom when you are playing against each other.
“From the hype around England against Australia, then playing with him.... it was really good actually.
“You have got two guys who are going to play each other, who want to be winning and have their own ways of going about it, who end up working together – the IPL is probably the only place where you get that. You just get knowledge from your team-mates whether they be Indian, Australian, South African or whatever it is, which is the great thing about the IPL.”
Asked if Smith’s insights were entirely authentic, a grinning Stokes added: “It would be a good tactic if he wasn’t!”
As well as expanding Stokes’s network of contacts, his £1.7m deal with Pune has seen his status as one of the game’s global elite soar. His name will be high on the list of franchises the world over and he can expect an even bigger payday in next year’s draft.
And while he may be able to wander the streets of Headingley, where the Royal London One-Day series against South Africa gets under way tomorrow, without too much trouble, he is now a fully fledged sub-continental celebrity.
“You can walk across the road here and get a coffee without “selfie, selfie, selfie” and this kind of stuff,” he said. “Cricket is a religion out in India and it’s completely different to England. They go mad for it.
“They’ll queue up for five hours just to get a seat just to see (Pune team-mate) MS Dhoni walk out onto the pitch. It’s an amazing place to experience but I just think it’s different wherever you go in the world and India is obviously the extreme of it.”
The terms of Stokes’s release by the England and Wales Cricket Board meant he was unable to feature in the semi or final for Pune, instead joining up with Trevor Bayliss’s squad for a get together in Andalucia ahead of a packed international summer.
Former England skipper Kevin Pietersen, commentating at the IPL, was aghast that Stokes and Jos Buttler, who played for eventual champions Mumbai Indians, were not allowed to feature in the showpiece because of “beers in Spain”.
Stokes used the same three words to caption an Instagram video of a group gym session at the camp and insists the time was not wasted.
“I think there was a lot of criticism about that purely because it was in Spain. If we’d done something like that in England I don’t think there would have been a bean said at all,” he said.
“We did a lot of fitness work, fielding work and a lot of team bonding stuff whether that be golf in the morning, quiz at night time. I think the whole thing got blown up because it was in Spain and obviously you associate Spain with sunshine, beer, parties and not hard work. But we did a lot of hard work.
“There was a lot of stuff around saying I should have been able to play (in the final) but it was agreed from the start... that was as long as I was going to stay regardless of what happened.
“Playing for England is always the main priority in decisions like that, it was made very clear at the start of the tournament.”
Three games against the world’s No 1 50-over side represents a stern test but Stokes is happy to embrace England’s status as favourites.
“It’s always exciting to play in front of a home crowd and it’s a massive series against South Africa,” he said.
“They’re a very strong side and the Champions Trophy is the eight best in the world. Any team can beat anyone.”