Ben Stokes and the art of captaincy
Few foresaw the depths of psychological and tactical insight that England's Test leader would bring to the role
There's a famous picture of Nasser Hussain in the dressing-room in Karachi in December 2000 - head buried in his hands, mind far removed from the hubbub surrounding him. You'd be forgiven for assuming that his world had just imploded, but in fact he was merely drinking in the crowning moment of his career - a series win in Pakistan, making him the first England captain to achieve such a feat since Ted Dexter 40 years before.
From the dog days of the 1990s to one of the great overseas wins, that moment remains in the eyes of many England fans the apogee of the era, over and above the more populist triumph of the 2005 Ashes. But 22 years later, Ben Stokes has just gone the same journey and further still, to mastermind a victory of such staggeringly absolute proportions that it ended, not with a sob of emotion, but a grin of frustration that he'd failed by a few metres to hit his final shot for a record-breaking six.
Such are the baffling contradictions in a triumph that is unprecedented by pretty much any measure you'd care to judge it by. No captain had ever whitewashed Pakistan on home soil before, let alone at a series run-rate of 5.50 an over, or from the sort of bleak post-Ashes wasteland into which Stokes' tenure was launched in the summer, or while showcasing a style of leadership that bears comparison with any of the great svengalis of years gone by. Stokes and Mike Brearley at the top of a list of England's captain-philosophers, even while he's been swinging his bat like Errol Flynn from a chandelier? Nobody in their right minds could have seen that coming.
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Brendon McCullum, England's coach and Stokes' perfectly matched sidekick, summed up his style after the Karachi win. "There's maverick in it and genius in a lot of it," he said. "The skipper never lets the game drift. He's always pulling a string somewhere and the guys follow him. He's just got an insatiable appetite to keep moving the game forward … it's the man management, it's the consistency of message, it's the pure passion and drive that he's got to make a significant difference in Test cricket, and English cricket."
And yet, bafflingly, despite this seminal impact on both his team and his sport, Stokes has managed to hide his captaincy credentials in plain sight for almost the entirety of his decade-long career. Before him came Alastair Cook and then Joe Root, each setting drab new records for most matches in charge, even while the Test team's ambitions drifted along like the Mary Celeste, with both men enduring way beyond their natural spans because no one else in the set-up was deemed capable of shouldering the burden.
And even up to the moment that he first strolled out in his England blazer, it was still possible to believe that Stokes - burdened in a whole other way by his status as talismanic allrounder - had accepted the job on sufferance; a leader of last resort, taking one for the team in spite of being burnt-out only the previous summer, due to a shocking dearth of alternatives.
Instead that deeply suppressed ambition is arguably the key reason why he commands such unstinting loyalty now. Until he rang Rob Key to declare an interest in the wake of Root's resignation, perhaps the only inkling of how deep Stokes' waters ran had come in the lead-up to the 2019 Ashes. Then, having been stripped of the vice-captaincy after his nightclub arrest in Bristol, he sought out Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, and begged to be reinstated.
Stokes is as close to a Brearley acolyte as England has hit upon in a generation - and you couldn't have predicted that comparison would ever be made with a straight face
But even that, you sensed, was a move borne of his team-first ethic; an understanding that, as a figure of such towering importance to England's series hopes, it was in nobody's interests for him either to have to speak out of turn if something needed to be said, or to bite his tongue for fear of making a scene. And now that he's in charge, that manifest lack of agenda means that no one feels obliged to mind their Ps and Qs at any level of the dressing-room, let alone second-guess their strokeplay.
England's high-octane batting has been the headline aspect of Stokes' reign, perhaps even to a distracting degree - if the team isn't playing down the connotations of "Bazball", even while flaying 506 for 4 in a single day's play, then they are egging on an 18-year-old debutant to "Nighthawk" them over the line to victory. But if England's approach has habitually been tailored towards hitting paydirt in the fourth innings, then this Pakistan tour - in which the first two Tests were won "despite" batting first - has brought Stokes' tactical mastery in the field into sharp and timely focus.
As with the batting, unyielding aggression has been Stokes' headline ploy in the field, although the devil as ever is in the detail - witness England's brilliant management of reverse-swing at Rawalpindi, which, as if to prove the value of his open-minded approach, all stemmed from Root's suggestion that they sack off the new-ball swing and focus on scuffing it up in a bouncer barrage instead. And where was that tactical dexterity when Root himself was captain? Clearly, it wasn't just Stokes hiding in plain sight under the previous regime.
Even on the occasions when England's tactics have not gone entirely to plan - such as Stuart Broad being battered for a world-record 35 runs in an over by Jasprit Bumrah last summer - nothing has been able to deflect Stokes from his team's over-riding focus, the harvesting of ten wickets in every innings, a feat they have now achieved in each of their 19 fielding stints, including their solitary loss (by an innings against South Africa at Lord's).
All of which has required a level of buy-in that no ordinary leader could hope to cultivate. And while it's only those within the team environment who will get to experience the full range of his people-skills - leaving the rest of us to marvel at such surface-level insights as a six-hitting competition on the eve of a Test match - even those who've known him the longest have been blown away by his new-found emotional intelligence.
"He's always had a fantastic cricket brain… but he's just so much more rounded than when we were growing up," Mark Wood, a team-mate since schooldays in Durham, said on the eve of the third Test. "He was this alpha guy who would whack it, but he's got other sides to him now. He'll put an arm round people, express what he means really articulately. I didn't think he had some of the words in his locker. But he's been world-class."
But if it's psychology that makes his team tick, then it's only right and proper to put the captain himself back on the couch and drill into his own modus operandi - which, as a competitive animal whose CV includes some of the most incredible feats of single-handed match-seizing in cricket's history, suddenly seems defined by a fascinating blend of desire and detachment. Despite alpha-ing every critical moment of the series, Stokes still flies home with a personal record of one wicket at 124.00, and a top-score of 41 in six innings. And he could not be more content with his lot.
"He's got the benefit of a long and distinguished career behind him, and he's in that stage of his life where he wants to do something significant and make a real impact," McCullum said. "Not just on the game but on other people's careers. He's identified that taking away that pressure and that fear of failure allows the talent and the skill to come out."
It sounds obvious in theory, but it's a startling balance to strike. When any given moment demands utter devotion to the cause, Stokes remains your man - be it an 11-over spell of back-breaking reverse-swing at Rawalpindi, or the small matter of the T20 World Cup final victory in November (not technically a captain's performance, but as the man with trophy-winning knowhow, Stokes knew it was on him to take singular charge of England's faltering hopes).
He lives for the struggle more viscerally than any opponent can ever know. And yet, at every other moment bar the crunch, Stokes knows how to step back, let the situation breathe and his colleagues with it. He can even allow himself to look foolish if it helps to reaffirm the team's light-hearted course - take his third-ball duck in Rawalpindi, which led Ollie Pope to quip "you're in a good place, aren't you?" as he returned to the dressing-room, or his literal bat-flinging on the third evening in Karachi, just two of the occasions when he's batted with the polar-opposite diligence that he brought to bear at Lord's or Headingley in 2019, let alone Melbourne last month.
Is it cod-psychology to trace everything back to Bristol? Probably, but seeing as the Bazball ethos is literally a confidence trick anyway, it's not unfair to speculate on what that brush with career oblivion truly meant to Stokes - as the dark clouds gathered around him, as per the brooding beach-side training sessions in his recent documentary, and he faced up to the shockingly real possibility that his liberty and livelihood were about to be taken away from him.
As it happens, Stokes' last public act before his fate was determined at Bristol Crown Court in August 2018 was to bowl England to victory in a scintillating finish to the first Test against India at Edgbaston. After sealing the match with three vital wickets on the final morning, he addressed the Sky Sports cameras in a devastatingly dead-eyed interview. "I don't know what to be feeling right now," he admitted, as he tried to savour the triumph, while knowing he might never get to play for his country again. "Playing for England means so much."
Upon his acquittal ten days later, however, it was as if Stokes was possessed by the guilt of the grateful - a man so committed to atonement that, in catastrophically humid conditions on the subsequent tour of Sri Lanka, he had to be taken to one side by Trevor Bayliss, and told to ease off his training before it broke him. He barely listened to that advice, but instead kept flinging himself into the moments that allowed him to dig deeper than most men could ever countenance. Never was this more telling than in those twin peaks of 2019 - most obvious, perhaps, his Ashes epic at Headingley, given that his arrest had come on the eve of the tour of Australia two winters earlier, and had been such a destabilising factor in the disaster that unfolded.
And if all that makes for a pretty heavy origin story - light years removed from the sunshine and laughter of the tour just gone - then there was time for it to get darker still before the dawn: the death of Stokes' father after a lengthy battle with brain cancer, the unrelenting mental strain of the pandemic, the reluctant but selfless return to action after the Covid outbreak in 2021 (when, in an omen of triumphs to come, he took a back seat in a brilliant 3-0 ODI series win over Pakistan, but revved up his scratch team-mates, Zak Crawley among them, by telling them if they batted as slowly as Babar Azam's men had done, they'd never play for one of his teams again). And then, soon afterwards, the inevitable bursting of the dam, as a badly healed finger injury finally tipped his equilibrium over the edge.
Every part of that gruellingly high-profile narrative has since been assimilated into the leader who has emerged in the past eight months, and has been projected back out into an ethos that is anchored in excellence, but expressed through pure joy.
As such, the psychology of Stokes' captaincy is utterly compelling. He hasn't yet placed a helmet at short leg to encourage his opponents to hit across the line, as Brearley once did in a Championship match against Yorkshire, but in every other respect of his leadership, he is as close to a Brearley acolyte as England has hit upon in a generation - and you couldn't have predicted that comparison would ever be made with a straight face.
Arguably, this even comes down to the sight of Rehan Ahmed celebrating his own break-out success with a bout of "village-green slogging", the phrase that Brearley memorably ascribed to Ian Botham at Headingley in 1981. Rehan's free rein may not have paid off to the same extent in the short term, but in the long term, the value of allowing England's newest starlet to treat his break-out moment as an extension of the playground could prove to be incalculable.
First and foremost, you sense that Stokes' new approach is a survival mechanism - personally and collectively. It is the best, and perhaps the only, means to ensure Test cricket gets the buy-in it needs to thrive in an era when itineraries are jam-packed and the temptations on the T20 circuit are too lucrative to ignore. If a player with horizons as broad as Will Smeed's, for instance, can turn his back on red-ball cricket at the age of 21, then there are mission-critical reasons to make the environment as attractive as possible to the stars of the next generation, Rehan and Harry Brook key among them.
But it is crucial for England's existing generation of players too, most of whom lived through the misery of the Ashes just gone, the most vapid surrender in the storied history of the rivalry. Coming hot on the heels of the lockdown tours of 2020-21, when the players could hardly have felt more certain that they existed solely for the fulfilment of TV contracts, Stokes and his men are perhaps within their rights to recognise that this profession needn't be so grimly serious. By setting out to entertain, they will amuse themselves first and foremost - and the rest can follow from there.
And to that end, few cricketers have a more acute understanding of how serious that game-face needs to be when the stakes are at their highest. Stokes' experience of outlasting the expectation of two World Cup run-chases, not to mention Headingley, means he knows how devilishly tough it is, not only to stay the course at all, but to manage the exponential expectations as the winning post draws into sight.
Such are the reasons why he was content to challenge Pakistan with dimly obtainable fourth-innings targets in both the first and second Tests, safe in the knowledge that the closer they got to their goal, the more fraught those endeavours would become. The bear-hug that Mark Wood earned for his leg-side extraction of Mohammad Nawaz in Multan perhaps betrayed a bead of anxiety on the second occasion in particular, but hindsight states that Stokes' carrots could not have been more perfectly dangled.
The flipside of Stokes' experience is surely no less telling - when set against the triumphs that he has gone on to oversee, his crushing failure to close out the T20 World Cup final in Kolkata must seem oddly empowering to the men who are now learning the game under his wing - a reminder that, no matter how badly you might blow up in your bid to do the right thing for your team, you're surely unlikely to fail quite as spectacularly as four trophy-losing sixes in a row.
And even if you do, as Stokes memorably told Jofra Archer before the 2019 World Cup final Super Over, he himself is living proof that the sun will still rise the following day, and that when all the fuss has blown over, it's still only a game at the end of it all.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket