Ben Stokes' England captaincy: what went into it before he took charge

A year into the allrounder's groundbreaking tenure at the helm, a look back behind the scenes at the lead-up into his crowning

Ben Stokes looks on ahead of the toss, Pakistan vs England, 3rd Test, Karachi, 1st day, December 17, 2022

Ben Stokes has not generally been a fan of wearing the England blazer for photo opportunities  •  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

"Oh no, oh no, oh no."
When he was told by Joe Root that he would be stepping down as England's Test captain after five years in the job, Ben Stokes relayed the news to his wife, Clare. Her response was immediate and dismayed. She knew what was coming and was understandably concerned.
Stokes had returned to the side for the Ashes in Australia after a mental-health break during the 2021 summer and was just starting to feel like himself on the Caribbean tour that followed. Now, with Root stepping down, Stokes was the one standout candidate for the Test captaincy.
The fear from those close to him was that it might be a bit soon, though they did not doubt Stokes had the skill sets for the job.
"I hope Stokesy doesn't mind me saying, but he was not in the greatest place himself when I started playing," says Ollie Robinson, who first lined up alongside Stokes during that 2021-22 Ashes. "He was a shell of the person I'd seen in the [previous] 12 months."
The start of the Ireland Test on Thursday this week will mark a day over a year since Stokes first walked out at Lord's as England men's newly appointed Test captain. The journey since then has been as successful as it has been thrilling.
For England to be where they are now - stable, thriving, comfortable in their skin - with thoughts of beating Australia later this summer, speaks of a remarkable turnaround. Those fears about Stokes' capacity for the job have turned out to be unfounded.
The month leading up to that first Test against New Zealand last year was uncertain. The top of England men's cricket was being rebuilt after a number of departures. What has become clear since, however, is that Stokes was far more than just a brick in the rebuild. Rather, he was the scaffolding.
Stokes did not want to give the impression that the captain was above his players. His rationale was that he would do the things he needed to do, but none of it needed to be about him: the team comes first
Communication was a key part of his toolkit. He took calls, made calls, spoke to players, outlining how he wanted to be as a leader, talked about the cricket he wanted to play and the messages he wanted to purvey. Not all those conversations went well, not all the messages were crystal-clear, but by the time he walked out for his first toss as Test captain, the basic structure for the success that followed was in place.


In his last media interaction as captain, Root reiterated his desire to take the team forward. Privately, though, he was done. He officially stepped down on April 16, the day before Rob Key was appointed managing director. The timing was no coincidence - the two had had conversations when it became clear Key was to assume the role.
Before the announcements, Key texted Root to see where he was at, assuring him that no conversation needed to happen straight away. Root had asked for time off following the defeat in the Caribbean and Key did not want to intrude.
Root called him back a minute later. Over the course of an hour and a half, Root said he would be stepping down and gave his thoughts on a new direction for the team. In conclusion, he said Stokes might be the ideal replacement to affect necessary change.
Just as well, because Key only had eyes for Stokes. He had already spoken to those around Stokes to gauge his readiness and to assess what would have to be in place to get the most out of him in a demanding role.
As it happened, Stokes flipped Key's first chat around and they spoke about how best to help Root continue through the summer. One aspect was the need to bring the team closer together. During the tough times, when England won just one Test in 17 before the 2022 summer, Root felt isolated from the wider group; the nature of being captain during this period meant some team-mates kept their distance.
Stokes had always been sympathetic to Root's struggles and was committed to helping him through the rut. At the end of the tour of the West Indies, as the squad were at their lowest ebb, anxious about their futures, and amid talk of a complete overhaul, Stokes took the floor and gave an impassioned speech about how there was no need for a fresh start. The talent in the room was more than enough to bring back success, he said.
Stokes originally regarded even talking of replacing Root as an act of betrayal. That changed when Root informed him he did not want to do the job anymore. Thus, when Key broached the subject again, Stokes was all in. All in enough for Key to drive up north to shake on it and thrash out some ideas, such as bringing in Brendon McCullum as new Test head coach.
Stokes made one final call to Root to ask for his blessing - though it was not Root's to give. Stokes wanted to show loyalty to someone who had stood by him through thick and thin.
Root could not have been more encouraging. From that point on, Stokes threw himself into the captaincy. ECB sources were surprised by the level of preparation he had clearly done. While Root, and Alastair Cook before him, were inquisitive to the point of being tentative at the start of their tenures, Stokes had a plan for how he wanted to deal with every facet of the role.
He wanted to reduce the number and length of team meetings, particularly those on matters that did not relate to on-field performances. He wanted to cut out middlemen, especially when it came to selection, believing any decision he was responsible for needed to be articulated to the relevant parties by him.
He also had a clear idea of how he wanted to approach the media. Not just in terms of how he presented himself but what that meant for the team. The tone was set on his unveiling.
"I said to Stokes, 'Do you want to say much?' He just turned to me and said, 'No.' That was it. I was like, 'Well, I'm not going to say anything then'"
Rob Key, England director of cricket, about a team get-together ahead of the New Zealand series in 2022
Stokes held firm on two things to do with his first media engagement at the start of May: the location, and what he would wear. His introductory press conference took place at Chester-le-Street, not Lord's. He wanted to be true to Durham, and part of him also didn't see the point in trekking down to London and back for a day.
He refused to have his photo taken in an England blazer, opting to wear the track suit instead. Even that was a compromise, given his first choice was to do it in his civvies. To this day Stokes refuses to pose for staged photos at Lord's in an England blazer - something of a tradition for Test captains.
Stokes did not want to give off the impression that the captain was above his players. His rationale was that he would do the things he needed to do, but none of it needed to be about him: the team comes first.


Before McCullum arrived in the UK, England players and staff got together at England's National Football Centre in St George's Park, near Derby. With the New Zealand series a few weeks away, it was the first time the whole group got together with Stokes as captain.
Over 48 hours, players underwent medical screenings, had headshots taken, and generally spent time with each other, bonding. Some dropped in for a few hours, others stayed for the full two days. James Anderson and Stuart Broad had returned after being axed for the West Indies, and were noticeably chipper. Similarly, an uncapped Matthew Potts, usually reserved, was at ease in this setting. The vibe was very much about opening a new chapter in English cricket. Things felt different.
Key, though comfortable with the backroom staff and players, was unsure how to play things with the wider group. He wondered if as managing director he should say a few words.
"We had all just started. Our players, medical staff - everyone's there," Key says. "I said to Stokes, 'Do you want to say much?' He just turned to me and said, 'No.' That was it. I was like, 'Well, I'm not going to say anything then.' It was funny - he didn't say a word."
It turned out Stokes had spoken with players privately, and all of them left those meetings raring to get back in an England shirt. What needed to be said had already been said. Key was impressed. "He'd had his conversations; he didn't need to do it again. You don't have to say a thousand words to get the point across."
His ethos had already been put across in his first media briefing as captain, when he asked for "ten selfless cricketers" alongside him. It was then embodied in his first first-class innings after the appointment, when he struck 161 from 88 deliveries against Worcestershire for Durham.
Arguably the most profound impact was felt among those "above" Stokes. He impressed in his first selection meeting, which featured Key; McCullum; James Taylor, who was an England selector at the time; performance director Mo Bobat; and David Court (Player Identification and Talent Pathway Lead). Though Stokes was only one of three with a deciding vote on selection, along with McCullum and Key, he struck a balance between being respectful and willing to listen while knowing exactly who he wanted for that first Test squad. He was compassionate, empathetic, and most important, calculated.


After a round of golf during the 2021-22 Ashes, Ollie Pope was taken aside by Stokes for a quick word.
The No. 6 batter had made 35, 4, 5 and 4 in the first two matches of the series. England were two down and something needed to change as a whitewash loomed large. Pope figured he was about to be axed.
Stokes struck a balance between being respectful and willing to listen while knowing exactly who he wanted for his first Test squad as captain. He was compassionate, empathetic, and most important, calculated
"You're the man to bat five," Stokes said. He explained that he himself would shift up the order to No. 4, with Pope moving up to slot in behind him. Pope was surprised.
"He told me not to worry about selection issues," he says. "He was obviously backing me to go in and bat No. 5, play the series and stop stressing. Which is what I was doing at the time - overthinking."
The next day, Pope was dropped.
"It was a stinker," he laughs.
Stokes found Pope to apologise, saying it was a conversation they probably should not have had. Stokes was trying to be a good vice-captain to Root, and had not clocked a shift in the wind.
Pope holds no grudge: "He did sell me down the river at the time, but not in a bad way. I wasn't playing very well, I'm not surprised I got dropped."
Even if things did not happen the way Stokes said they would, the talk and subsequent apology fast-tracked their relationship. Pope appreciated how much Stokes rated him at a time when Pope did not rate himself. He also liked knowing he could pick up the phone to Stokes for an honest conversation. Which is exactly what he did in the second week of May 2022, when Stokes was about to select his first Test squad.
Pope was trawling social media when he spotted a post from the Barmy Army about Root moving back to No. 4. Sensing an opportunity, he put in a call about the No. 3 spot.
Though he had not done it before for Surrey, the call was not about selling himself, he says, more about making Stokes aware he was willing to do it. He said he would make the shift for his county in their upcoming Championship match against Kent.
The conversation was relaxed and straightforward, but Pope did not feel particularly good about it. "I left the phone call feeling very flat," he says. "He didn't say I wasn't going to get picked, but he was like, 'Stay at four for Surrey this week and just keep scoring your runs.'"
"It usually means someone doesn't want to give you the bad news now. They'll just tell you next week."
A week later, Stokes informed Pope he was in, and that he just wanted him to approach the next match with his usual verve without worrying about changing for a new role. "It took my mind off England stuff for that week," says Pope, who scored 96 in his only innings against Kent, at No. 4. "Getting another score before that Test series was probably what I needed."
At the end of that Lord's Test against New Zealand, Stokes told Pope over a beer he had always planned to pick him at three.
"I assume it was a good, well-thought-out plan from Stokesy. Or the phone call put it on his radar. Let's go with the first one!"
The 25-year-old has gone on to average 41.63 at first drop, scoring two centuries, and is now Stokes' official vice-captain.
Pope regards himself as an indicator of how Stokes views selection and the game itself. "Like, who puts a guy at No. 3 who was struggling at five or six? It was clear to me after that first selection what he was about."


Ollie Robinson was a little confused and a little pissed off.
Key had just called him to tell him he would not be part of the Test series against New Zealand. It was not the news he was expecting, or what he had been told to expect.
"Looking back, it was probably best that I didn't get selected for that [New Zealand] series. I think that gave me the drive to be like 'Right, let's sort this out and get on with it'"
Ollie Robinson
"What's going on?" Robinson said in a text to Stokes.
A few minutes later, a reply: "Let me get out of this meeting and I'll give you a call."
Robinson played no part in the tour of the Caribbean, thanks to a back issue. Having been pulled up on his fitness earlier that winter in Australia by the bowling coach at the time, Jon Lewis, the onus was on Robinson to hit the ground running in the summer.
It didn't quite go to plan. Illness meant his domestic season started late, with two matches for Sussex at the start of May, against Middlesex and Leicestershire. It was in between those two fixtures that Robinson - having taken 5 for 66 and 2 for 51 against Middlesex - had a first conversation with "Stokes, the captain". They had only shared a dressing room for six months but had good rapport, established during the biosecure training bubble at the Ageas Bowl during the 2020 summer. Stokes had no qualms casually dropping in conversation that Robinson would feature from the off.
"[Stokes] was like, 'Just string a couple of games together and you can be in,'" says Robinson. "In my head, I thought, 'Right, that's good news. Just a couple of games and that's me in for New Zealand.'"
Even after pulling out of a match for a County Select XI against the touring New Zealand side, Robinson was relaxed ahead of Lord's. So when Key called to tell him otherwise, he wanted a word with Stokes. What he thought might be an apologetic chat was quite the opposite.
"At the moment you're not quite ready for that [Test cricket]", Stokes said. "Your fitness isn't where we want it to be. We want you to bowl long spells and bowl all day and keep your pace as high as your first spell for the whole game."
At the end came an olive branch. "He said to me if I can get to that place, I'm in his team every single day of the year," Robinson says.
Since returning for the second Test against South Africa in August that summer, Robinson has taken 27 wickets at 21.25. Stokes has been true to his word, picking him for the last seven Tests, and regards him as a lock for the Ashes this summer.
"Looking back, it was probably the best thing that happened to me, that I didn't get selected for that [New Zealand] series," says Robinson. "Because there's no way I would have got to where I am now as quick. I think that gave me the drive to be like "Right, let's sort this out and get on with it.
"At that point I hadn't actually had any clear knowledge or way forward from my back [problems], as well. We were still battling that at the time. That gave me the kick up the a*** to be like, 'Come on, let's sort this out. Let's get some injections, get back training.' It helped me get to where I am."


Stokes eventually decided to give a speech to the whole group at the start of England's first day of training at Lord's, ahead of that first New Zealand Test. He spoke then of the need to play more freely and cast doubt from their minds. There was no talk about winning, ambitions to climb up the Test rankings, improving their World Test Championship position, or even about getting into a position to win the Ashes for the first time since 2015. It was all about feel.
Stokes used batting as an analogy: that you bat your best when you are "nice and relaxed, and not gripping the bat too tight". It was all about how he wanted them to feel. Then came something of a rallying cry.
"The only voices that are important are the ones in this dressing room. This team is not going to be what is in the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph or Sky. It's the England cricket team. Me, Baz and everyone else in this dressing room. The only voice you've got to listen to is this dressing room."
England's players and the team have not just mimicked Stokes' approach to cricket but also his approach to all of them
Practical methods of applying those principles included turning off the television as soon as technical analysis of someone's technique came up on the coverage. All that needs to be said, all that needs to be known, is right there in the room with you: these are the people looking out for you.
The message was reiterated on the eve of Stokes' first day in the field as captain. Graham Thorpe, England's long-time batting coach, who had lost his job after the Ashes, was seriously ill in hospital. Stokes wanted to show Thorpe he was in their thoughts and asked for a shirt to made with Thorpe's name and cap number, 564, on the back, to wear out to the middle for the toss.
There was one slight issue - he had to wear a blazer. Stokes was adamant the shirt would get aired. In the end, he wore the blazer out to the middle, removing it to reveal the name and number as he flipped the coin alongside Kane Williamson.
Speaking to the team the day before, Stokes said it was important Thorpe knew he had their support. That someone who had been so close, so loyal to the players during a tough run now needed them more than ever. He reiterated the importance of being true to yourself and the person next to you, not just the shirt and the cap.
The rest - well, you know how that plays out. Ten wins in 12, famous victories over New Zealand, India, South Africa and Pakistan, all through a style of play in his image, underlined Stokes' worth as a captain. The individuals and the team have not just mimicked his approach to cricket but also his approach to all of them.
With the Ashes on the horizon, England's values are due for the sternest examination of these principles. Can these tenets of enjoyment and selflessness survive defeat at home to Australia? We could be about to find out.
What is certain is Stokes has done his utmost to bring the Test team to where they are today. As much through his work on the field as that first month off it.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo