There has been a fair amount of fretting about the prospect of Ben Stokes, England Test captain. Even after a weary Joe Root called him before Easter to explain he was stepping down from the job, his wife, Clare, immediately said “oh no, oh no, oh no”, knowing full well what was likely to follow.
Yet as Stokes strolled into the Colin Milburn Lounge at Durham’s Riverside Ground on Tuesday, decked out in gray-blue England training gear and that fiery red hair slicked back like a Peaky Blinder, he looked like a man at peace with the promotion. This may be an almighty Hail Mary from English cricket, one that heaps even more responsibility on the shoulders of an all-rounder champion who needed a spell out of the game last year, but you would scarcely have known it.
Indeed, over the next 20 minutes or so Stokes spoke with impressive assuredness. Had he coveted the role? Not at all, but he would never turn it down either. Did he still need time to decide when Rob Key, the new director of men’s cricket, offered him the role? A little, he said, which turned out to be barely a minute. Can he yank the handbrake on a team who have won just one of their past 17 Tests? The only way is up, Stokes replied, unwittingly channeling his inner Yazz and the Plastic Population.
Even the Bristol incident in 2017, a subject Stokes has not always enjoyed engaging with publicly, was met with good grace. “Back then, no, I’d never been pictured sitting at a speaking table as England captain,” he said. That night on the tiles is not the only such brush with career seppuku along the way, having been thrown off a Lions tour in 2013 for drinking; the unfulfilled talent of Matt Coles, the other player sent packing by Andy Flower that day, shows what easily could have been.
But while Stokes may be as raw a captain as England have had in the team’s 145-year history – the first Test against West Indies in 2020, when Root was on paternity leave, remains his only first-class match in charge – he believes these experiences will serve to inform his leadership positively; so, too, a rollercoaster playing career that has featured the crushing low of that horror last over in the 2016 World T20 final and those immortalizing twin peaks of Lord’s and Headingley in 2019.
And then there is the spell out last year for mental health reasons; the “dark place” that related to the grief of losing his father, Ged, months earlier and was triggered by a finger injury as he tried to plow on. Aside from the unsuccessful past tenures of Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff, and the demands of captaining as an all-rounder – “I’ve had to deal with those comparisons since I was 18,” he said with a shrug – that four-month absence is the main source of angst regarding his succession of Root.
But for Stokes, who revealed he is still in regular contact with a therapist, the spell out was a show of strength. “The hardest thing to do in the first place is to talk to somebody,” he said, adding that any player in a similar strife could come to him. Asked how his old man, a teak-tough New Zealand rugby league international back in the day, would react to his son captaining England, he replied: “He followed me everywhere and thought he knew better than me. If he was still around, he’d be telling me how to do this job already. But yeah, he’d be very, very proud. ”
Stokes inherited his father’s headstrong character and, by his own admission, has tended to go with his gut in the past. But the 30-year-old all-rounder has clearly put a lot of thought into his style of leadership: he wants players to follow his selfless, team-first approach, never dwell too heavily on failure and take the positive option where possible. There was also an insistence that senior players chip in tactically, not least as regards when best to bowl himself, and quipped that his time keeping on the field will also need some help given he never usually knows when the intervals are.
And though there is a head coach still to be hired and a squad to be selected before the first Test against New Zealand on 2 June, Stokes has already made some tactical decisions: as well as demanding Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad be returned to fold, he will also drop down to No 6 in the batting order. He intends to play a full role with bat and ball, not simply focus on the former, and believes the extra breathing space will help here. It looks a sound call, even if the knock-on effect – Jonny Bairstow either moving to No 5 and nudging out a hopeful, or returning behind the stumps and seeing Ben Foakes once again step aside – is yet to be settled upon.
There is plenty more to ponder besides before Stokes walks out for the toss at Lord’s; even his own fitness after a knee issue needs to be ticked off, starting with a return to face Worcestershire this Thursday. He also acknowledged the low ebb from which England start out, insisting it has “not been good enough”. Having made Test cricket his priority, he also hopes expectations will be tempered a touch while he, Key and the incoming head coach get to work on long-term solutions.
There are no guarantees of success or that the concerns about over-burdening the team’s talisman won’t come to pass. Nevertheless, this was a positive first outing from Ben Stokes, England Test captain. Like Durham, celebrating 30 years as a first-class county this summer, he has come a long way in a short space of time.