As I look back over a summer when Ben Stokes has inspired an extraordinary turnaround of England’s fortunes in Test cricket, I keep returning to a more distant memory. It was 2013, and Stokes and I were in Australia, his first England Lions tour as a player and my first as batting coach. He was sent home after coming back very late one evening or, more accurately, early one morning.
David Parsons, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s performance director, and the first-team coach, Andy Flower, happened to be over at the time and sat in on the disciplinary meeting. The feeling in the meeting was that Stokes did not seem to show any contrition at all and when it ended and he got up to leave, Flower – who had stayed quiet up to this point – said to him: “You really don’t want to play for England, do you?” Before he slipped out the door, Stokes replied: “Just watch me, pal.”
He made his Test debut later that year and we’ve been watching him ever since.
I remember also the Bristol incident and how Stokes really went through the mill. The aftermath of that incident, and the ensuing court case, was horrendous for him and it took a strong character to come through it. He returned to the international team on a one-day trip to New Zealand in 2018, which I was also on.
We had a team meeting at the start of the trip and as it started Trevor Bayliss told the group that Stokes would like to say something. He said a few words about how much it meant for him to be reselected and became quite emotional. I think to save him from tearing up Bayliss interjected “OK, Stokesy, that’s enough.”
But Stokes said: “No, I’m not finished yet.” Quick as a flash Moeen Ali butted in: “OK, Stokesy, no need to get punchy.” The whole room erupted in laughter. I remember that moment and the warmth it showed existed towards him in that group.
He is, to put it mildly, not your typical England Test captain. He has been known to drink and to smoke, to fight and to misbehave. He is covered in tattoos and is not privately educated. I suppose we weren’t sure what we were going to get with him – other great all-rounders such as Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff have found it difficult to navigate the twin demands of leadership and being the heart of the team in both disciplines – but Stokes is clearly a natural leader.
The management of certain players has been particularly striking. He was straight and firm with Ollie Robinson, but it was done in terms of praising the bowler’s potential and skill, while leaving him in no doubt as to the physical requirements of international cricket, and has inspired an immediate improvement. He has welcomed Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad back into the fold, got them excited about the future and buying in to a new mindset.
Jonny Bairstow’s excellence across the summer is largely down to the environment Stokes has created, which has allowed him to come into the middle-order to be aggressive, on the understanding that if he gets it wrong the management are fully behind him.
Younger players such as Ollie Pope and Zak Crawley see a captain who has been through the ups and downs of international sport and who shows great empathy with the challenges they face as young players. It is evident when I’ve spoken to the players how much they would, to use a sporting cliche, run through a brick wall for him.
The other part of a captain’s job is on the field and in terms of reading the ebb and flow of matches, the timing of bowling changes and the nuances of field placings, he seems to get most things right. As a bowler he has managed his own workload brilliantly and still had a big impact.
He has shown himself to have a really good feel of things and it has been notable that on occasions when things weren’t going England’s way – for example, at Edgbaston against a fine India side, where England conceded a big first-innings lead – heads were held high.
He has not got everything right. I saw him at Durham at the start of the season and he told me his players would only play with the freedom he wanted if he, as leader, walked the walk. As a batter he has certainly done that, but with mixed results.
At Old Trafford, he produced an innings of great class and character when the team needed it and the pressure was on, but too often his cavalier approach has meant he surrendered his wicket too easily. At Edgbaston he was dropped at extra cover, dropped at mid-off and then finally caught; at the Oval he hit a skier, got away with it, and then played the loosest waft you’ll ever see, was caught at slip and walked off as if he wasn’t even bothered.
In the circumstances it would be churlish to be too critical but he is such a good player that we expect the highest standards. As captain, some of his innings have not just failed to set the right example but have been a poor example for the group.
There are bigger challenges to come – not least an Ashes series next summer. The opponents England have beaten over the past few months included a fading New Zealand and a South Africa team with the weakest batting lineup I have seen from a major nation.
Of their first eight batters at the Oval only the captain, Dean Elgar, had played more than 10 Tests. That was partly because of injury but it must be a real concern for South Africa, particularly as they don’t have much Test cricket over the next few years and there is a sense the production line that not long ago produced Graeme Smith, Herschelle Gibbs, Hashim Amla and Jonty Rhodes has dried up. Worse than that, it feels that there is not just a loss of talent in their Test team, but a loss of interest in it.
Thanks to Stokes and his improving, entertaining side, there seems no imminent danger of England suffering that fate.