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Categorically Ben

It is easy to pigeonhole Stokes as a brash, combative allrounder, but there's more to him - as his frank autobiography reveals

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
Ben Stokes struck his fourth Test century, India v England, 1st Test, Rajkot, 2nd day, November 10, 2016

Stokes' rise has been a turbulent one, but his on-field exploits have increasingly taken centre stage  •  Associated Press

Ben Stokes is easy to categorise, isn't he? The combative allrounder who hits the ball with vengeful fury, bowls close to 90mph, throws himself around the field. The fiery redhead who likes a word with the opposition and won't back down from confrontation. The tattooed bruiser who punches lockers, likes a drink and trades as often in the idiotic as in the inspirational.
Stokes made his England debut more than five years ago but is still young enough to be cast as brash and unthinking. He charges into battle, feuds with other players, and picks up suspension points from the ICC.
But there are, of course, other sides to this 25-year-old career sportsman. A dedicated father of two, Stokes has been with his girlfriend, Clare, since he was 19 and freely admits to tears at the birth of his son, Layton. He is honest about needing to speak to a psychologist when dealing with anger and frustration, and says he wept in the shower after the poor tour of Sri Lanka that led to him missing out on the 2015 World Cup.
These are some of the insights provided in his autobiography, Firestarter. Like with others before him, the temptation to release a book while his star was in the ascendant overrode concerns that he might not have much to say. That is not so much of an issue for Stokes, though, whose career to date has not been short of incident. For someone who clearly prefers doing to talking, he is also gratifyingly open about his successes and failures - for which his ghostwriter, Richard Gibson, should take plenty of credit.
Like Botham and Flintoff before him, Stokes is a full-throttle competitor with a self-destructive streak
"Where I am concerned, there will be moments of heartache but also moments of great triumph," he writes early on, having gone straight in with an account of being hit for four consecutive sixes in the World T20 final. The image of Stokes crouched, head in hands, with Joe Root providing an arm on the shoulder after England's defeat to West Indies is powerful but it does not feel like it will end up defining him, not least because he is intent on throwing himself back into the thick of it at every opportunity. "It might be penthouse one day, shithouse the next, but it will never be for want of trying."
The fire in Stokes has, it seems, also helped forge a tougher, increasingly mature character. When discussing an unfortunate dismissal against Afghanistan in the World T20 group stage, he invokes Mario Balotelli and his "Why Always Me?" T-shirt. But while Balotelli has struggled to fulfil his potential for club or country, Stokes has developed into one of the most influential players in the England dressing room, serving as vice-captain during the recent ODI series in Bangladesh, and an equally passionate performer for the county he grew up with, Durham.
Even his outbursts of volatility have become more controlled: breaking a bat is far preferable to breaking a bone, as Stokes infamously did when tangling with a Kensington Oval locker in 2014. He now attempts to deal with the disappointment of getting out by methodically packing his kitbag, after discussions with England's psychologist, Mark Bawden.
It was to Bawden he turned at a pivotal juncture in 2013, when attempting to overcome a slump in form. Issues such as performance anxiety are much better understood nowadays - not least because of personal accounts like that of Jonathan Trott, the man Stokes replaced for his Test debut - and his candour is impressive:
Sharing my innermost thoughts was not a weakness at all, as it turned out. Leaving them to fester was only going to make the situation worse, Mark explained… He told me that I was suffering from Bottle, Bottle, Bang syndrome. In other words, I kept storing up everything in a certain bottle - inside of me, effectively - and I was bubbling it up until that bottle went bang and I exploded with frustration. Instead of letting this happen, I had to find another way of dealing with it.
At the start of that year, Stokes' stocks had dipped sharply when he was sent home from an England Lions tour of Australia for indulging in one too many late nights - "the worst bollocking actually came from Clare" - and with Andy Flower questioning whether he was serious about adding to the handful of limited-overs caps he had won in 2011. He ended it by becoming one of the few success stories of England's troubled 2013-14 Ashes tour.
But that was not the start of a smooth upward curve: less than 12 months later, under Flower's successor Peter Moores, he felt he "was being strangled as a player" after being asked to bat at No. 8.
The Stokes journey has been more eventful than most, from growing up as a rebellious and adventurous youngster in New Zealand, to forging a path as one of cricket's most exciting talents with his adopted country. Like Botham and Flintoff before him, Stokes is a full-throttle competitor with a self-destructive streak, but after a turbulent start with England, his on-field exploits are starting to take centre stage, be it the take-it-on-the-chin trauma of Kolkata or his stand-and-destroy innings of 258 in Cape Town a few weeks earlier - the second-fastest double-hundred in Test history.
Afterwards, he records in Firestarter, he sat down and wrote the wrong score (257) on a souvenir stump, in permanent marker. "That's me, I guess: brilliant one minute, useless the next." However you want to categorise Ben Stokes, he offers a pretty compelling story.
Firestarter: Me, Cricket and the Heat of the Moment
By Ben Stokes
293 pages, £20

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick