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HomeSportsCricketBen Stokes’ aggressive honesty could be just what England need

Ben Stokes’ aggressive honesty could be just what England need


“It’s never been a goal of mine, when I was younger, to be England captain.” And with that, even if only for an afternoon, there was a sense of reassurance. That Ben Stokes and his brand of aggressive honesty might be exactly what the game needs right now.

Those first orchestrated mutterings of a Test captain are usually the most bolshy and, thus, the least instructive. Promises made of future successes, peaks on the horizon to scale, blueprints for brands of cricket and other such speak you wish had stayed confined to its peculiar corner of high-performance Instagram.

As such, they are largely ignorable, beyond their only true purpose to provide the latter of the “before-after” comparison to reinforce the “two-term presidency toll” this job has on its incumbents. Joe Root’s pronouncement in 2017, held in Sheffield, was one of enthusiasm and potential fuelled by Root the personality. His resignation last month as he was cocooned by those truly close to him, was a press release that only spoke of pain.

It will likely end that way for Stokes because it always has. His steel and inner (and outer) fight can only soften that. It may be role never coveted and was never promised to him, thus breaking a lineage of ordained FECs, but it started here on Tuesday at Chester-le-Street with an understanding of the privilege and emotional pull, along with the acknowledgement of damage it causes to the occupier and the collateral for his close circle. When Stokes relayed Root’s decision to step down to his wife, Clare, she responded vicerally with “Oh no, oh no, oh no”, aware of exactly what was coming. “In the end,” mused Stokes, “it was a very easy decision. It’s not a job you can turn down.”

His mum needed 10 minutes to process the news before calling him back, such was the overwhelming emotion. It goes without saying it was a call even a parent dreams of, and there was no doubt sadness Stokes wasn’t having that conversation twice. His father, Ged, passed away in late 2020 but Stokes was still able to imagine how that particular chat would have gone once the pride had been registered: “[He always] thought he knew better than me. If he was still around and I told him, he’d be telling me how to do this job already.”

He should probably get used to that. He won’t be without advice, most of it unsolicited. And it will be harder than ever to block the outside noise, which is saying something given how much talk he has provoked to date.

It’ll be easy to do that early on, especially as the hard work begins in the dressing room. Stokes says he wants “10 people with the same mentality as me”, which is a sound first step, though the selflessness he sees as his strength and wants to instil in the rest comes from a quality that, from an English perspective at least, remains untouchable. His message, though, is that this is a clean slate. He just wants good cricketers. Just innocent cricketers.

“A great way to try to put it is that we have not played a game yet. All your previous performances, good or bad, we’re just starting fresh here. The role that I take on starts today but massively starts on 2 June.

“The team I pick or we pick along with the coach and the other guys, it will be that this is a fresh start. We are picking you because we feel like you are one of the best players in England. Everything that has happened before, don’t worry about it, we are starting fresh here.”

That is perhaps the hallmark of Stokes’ career so far: turning over the page and starting again. Whether the infamous Lions tour of 2013 when he was sent home in ignominy, the Caribbean locker he dented with his fist, that last over in the 2016 T20 Final, Bristol, the subsequent trial and even the mental health break – each have been depths from which he has risen higher.

At some point, you wonder how much turmoil can the human spirit take. And the fear for such a talismanic allrounder is captaincy may have an almost cancerous effect of stripping away his strengths. To him, however, the scar tissue from the missteps have reinforced his whole.

“Back then (specifically, during the fallout of his Bristol street fight), no – I’d have never pictured sitting at a table speaking as England captain.

“I’ve always tried to see every experience, be they good or bad, they’re always something to learn from. You know, everybody will still speak about the T20 World Cup final. There have been plenty of other experiences as well that I could have felt chew me up, swallow me up and that’s me done. I never let that happen. I guess I’m too stubborn to let anything get too on top of me.”

Like those before him, we might revisit these words down the line, whether at the end of the year or many more from now and indulge our “how it started versus how it finished” fetish. But as he posed for a few last photos before disappearing to the Chester-le-Street to train with his Durham teammates, it was hard not to believe him. Or at least not to believe it could be different with him.

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