Ben Stokes' homecoming gives England chance to 'show the world how good they are'

New Zealand series presents the latest challenge of Stokes' tenure as captain

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

Stokes will captain England in the country of his birth  •  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

On Thursday at the Bay Oval, Ben Stokes will captain England in New Zealand. Which is quite a big deal - because it isn't.
The boy from Christchurch turned twenty-something renegade is now the 31-year-old figurehead of the prim and proper world of English cricket. Even if he's no fan of suits, he's wearing the blazer damn well.
There will be family and childhood friends to watch him, both here in Mount Maunganui and next week in Wellington. It's not so much of a homecoming as a scheduled return given how often he comes back to the country, and how often these two teams seem to come up against each other. It can't be long before Stuart Broad, on his fifth tour of New Zealand, qualifies for dual citizenship.
One of Brendon McCullum's go-to phrases since taking the big job at the start of last summer is "be where your feet are". Yet with Stokes it seems the case that he is wherever his feet have been. All the places he's experienced, all the things he has done, inform the decisions he makes in the here and now. And unlike most others, he leans more on the good times than the mistakes.
That, ultimately, forms the bedrock of his captaincy. A record of nine wins out of 10 Tests to date has been built upon learnings from success, and the associated graft put in to achieve it. Beyond the 89 caps in the longest format are leading-man roles in two limited-overs World Cups and a documentary. He is one of the most sought-after personalities in the world when it comes to lucrative franchise opportunities and simply time. Now he wants all that for others.
"I'm at a stage now where I would much prefer to leave a mark on other people's careers than look to make mine more established," he said, sat among the English press pack. "I've played a lot of cricket and done some great things with some great teams over the years. I think that, being captain now, I've got a real desire to make the best out of the team that I've got here and players who will come in in the future if that does happen.
"So that's one of my goals as England captain: to hopefully let some of these guys in the dressing room here just have an amazing career and if I can influence that in any way shape or form then I'll be happy."
You can already see that in play, with old and new. Broad and James Anderson, having considered retirement in 2022, now seem to be having the most fun in decades. Ben Duckett, who returned to the fold for Pakistan after six years out, believes "there's no better time to be playing Test cricket for England". All that is down to Stokes stripping away the pressures of the format without diminishing any of the privilege. He has pulled off a rare trick, not for the first time in his career.
His influences are few and not contained to cricket, or indeed real life. He cited Paul Collingwood, his skipper when he broke into the first team at Durham, as someone who was "very open to allowing the players that he had to go out and express themselves... He understood that he did have a group of players at the time who needed that and they wanted to go out and take the game on."
Eoin Morgan, who announced his retirement from all cricket on Monday, and was captain for 103 of Stokes' 137 caps across ODI and T20I cricket is another. "Obviously I don't need to go too much into how he did it," he mused, with a knowing grin. Pretty much all of Morgan's principles established during England's white-ball revolution have been instilled during this red-ball transformation.
The third and most surprising is Don Collier, a character played by Brad Pitt in Fury, a film set in 1945 about a tank commander who has to inspire his crew to fight their way across Germany during the final weeks of the European theatre of World War II. "[It's about] just trying to set an example by the things that you do and say," Stokes said, "and if you do say something then going out and actually doing it because that's when you get a really good response."
Stokes went on to say that sometimes, failing can be better for the collective. That does not quite play out as well in war. But in a sport where mistakes weigh so heavily, the manner in which Stokes operates on the field - particularly with bat in hand - reflects demanding as much of himself as he does of them. Especially when it comes to parking individual fear for the good and ambition of the collective. Though even that credit given to him is handed over to McCullum.
"I think he's taken a lot of his experience of the amount of cricket he's played and just tried to release all that and then tried to take it off the shoulders of other players," Stokes said. "And that not only comes from what we speak about on the field and what we try and do but away from the game as well.
"Just letting lads go out there and really express themselves in a way that doesn't add any more pressures on their shoulders. The expectations come from the guys in the dressing room and trying to not let any of the external noises outside our dressing room get into their head because I feel like in the past that might have crept in every now and again."
Wins, of course, are the true measure of a successful team. As much as those involved and around this England team say otherwise, the fact they are enjoying themselves is heavily linked to three series win - and a series squared against India carried over from the 2021 summer - in the space of nine months. Even with the focus on attitude, Stokes admits sometimes the numbers go some way to reinforcing the upsurge in form and process.
"At the end of the first game in Pakistan, when Colly read out all the records we'd managed to set or rewrite names into the history books, it was very… well, something to look back on and realise how special that game was in particular.
"I wouldn't say we necessarily go out there and try and break these records. I think it's just something that comes with the way we've gone about it, I guess? But no, we don't sit down before any series and go, 'these records need to be broken, let's go out there and try and do it' because I've never been one for setting myself benchmarks of runs and wickets and stuff like that because if you don't get those then you might feel like you've not performed well.
"I will look back on my career when I'm finished and look at how many times I've affected a game for England to win rather than setting out runs and wickets. It's something I like to do. But I just think everyone tries to play in a free way which allows them to show the world how good they are."
Despite the subdued nature of this two-match tour, it could be one reflected on positively for a few reasons. England have not won a series or even a Test here since 2008, and success could enhance the positive vibes heading into a summer featuring a one-off match against Ireland before a bumper yet concentrated Ashes series.
There is also the challenge of the pink ball under lights to consider, along with some unpredictable weather due to Cyclone Gabrielle. In many ways, the anomaly of this upcoming fixture compared to what lies ahead over the next year is a blessing. It provides another robust test of the now ingrained in-game values of this team, particularly when you consider England have lost five of their six day-night matches.
And yet even with those previous missteps, it is hard to see past an England win over the next fortnight, partly because of weakened opposition, partly because of the belief and application of this group of players who have taken a vow to be spurred on rather than burdened by history. The latter is without question the driving force, one they are assuming from their selfless, everyman leader.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo