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Ben Stokes carries wisdom of experience into ultimate England honour

New captain promises hard graft in bid to restore England's Test standards

David Hopps
David Hopps
England cricket captains traditionally take the job with a burst of energy and optimism before the demands of the job eventually wear them down. It gets to nearly everybody in the end. Ben Stokes is different. He is trying to do it the other way around.
Stokes has already experienced the ups and the downs. He knows what it is like to be beset by mental health issues because of the constant demands of a cricketer's life. He has been charged with affray, and found not guilty, in a high-profile court case. He has known the pressures and adulation routinely afforded to a world-class allrounder who is expected to deliver whenever the nation demands.
He has won World Cups and famously lost one - the World T20 final when England's victory disappeared in a cavalcade of sixes from Carlos Brathwaite in his final over.
"There's been plenty of other experiences as well that I could have felt chew me up, swallow me up and that's me done," he said. "I never let that happen. I guess I'm too stubborn to let anything get too on top of me."
The Ben Stokes captaincy will not tread the normal path of innocence to experience. At 30, he is already battle-hardened, a role model who has been both praised and pilloried. Life cannot throw much more at him. The central question is whether it has already thrown far too much or whether his appointment will become the culmination of a career that, at times, has already bordered on the herculean.
There was no desire for a glorious captaincy unveiling in the Long Room at Lord's, a reminder of past masters on every wall. With 79 Tests and 476 professional appearances, he has no need for reflected glories. Instead, the nation's cricket media made the trek to his manor at Chester-le-Street, "enter by Tower 2", English professional cricket's most northerly outpost, where he held court before an afternoon net for Durham. Many will follow him again for his return to competitive action at Worcester on Thursday.
His one concession to the captaincy is to slip down the order a notch and return to No. 6 so he can give full emphasis to bat and ball. His captaincy follows the principle of giving a job to a busy man.
His priority will be to gather people around him who he can trust. "If most of your ideas aren't really aligned, I don't see how things can get better if three people are thinking completely different things," he said. He is a salty old pro who clearly does not want the sort of blue-sky thinking characterised by Ed Smith's time as national selector.
He has struck up a good relationship with Rob Key, as MD of England men's cricket, and wants a coach who takes weight off him and who sees things from a player's perspective. Joe Root, who came through five years in the job without too much damage, has told him to surround himself with people he trusts.
"This is something Joe has told me: make sure you have the people around you to take as much of the pressure off you as possible. Me and Rob have had very good chats so far. We are very aligned on quite a lot of things which is very good initially. I feel what we need as players is a director of cricket who is there for the players."
After so long as Root's vice-captain, Stokes also regards a role many dismiss as outmoded as vitally important - he memorably pleaded with Tom Harrison, the ECB's CEO, for his reinstatement to the role in the wake of the Bristol episode. That could enhance Jos Buttler's chances of a return to England's Test side as Stokes' No.2, a player who he leant on heavily when he stood in for Root in the only match he has ever captained, the first Test against West Indies at the Ageas Bowl in 2020.
"I've got great senior players around me in the team already; it would be stupid and naive of me not to include them in decisions out on the field especially," he said. "It's something I thought I managed very well in my Test match against West Indies. I asked Jos a lot about me personally. He's played a lot of Test cricket. When you're thinking about doing something yourself, you're maybe not thinking about it as someone else would and Jos said to me a couple of times, 'You need to come on here'."
Stokes displayed little sense of excitement as he fielded his first media duties at Chester-le-Street. There was resolve, for sure, as there must be, but none of the livewire ambition that characterised Root's initial captaincy phase. Root gave off so much energy he should have been plugged into the National Grid. Stokes was assured, but relatively subdued. He is at his best in the heat of battle, a player most admired after a day of toil when his body is spent and his kit is stained by dirt and sweat.
"I've been through a lot of Goods and I've been through a lot of Bads and I feel like I can relate to both sides of what this sporting life can throw at you," he said.
"Why take it?" was one of the first questions he was asked. A sense of duty perhaps. A dogged determination to stare down England's record of one Test win in 17. The sense was that his reasoning does not go much deeper than that. He is not one to reflect or deliberate for too long.
"It's never been a goal of mine to be a captain of England," he said. "It's pretty simple for me. I was vice-captain and, if anything ever happens to the captain, the vice-captain takes over."
Many will fear for him, in part because of his four-month break from the game, brought on by a mix of exhaustion, the loss of his father and a serious finger injury, but especially so by those old enough to recall the troubled captaincies of two other great England allrounders, Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff. Botham won none of his 12 Tests as skipper; Flintoff won two of 11. While Flintoff's personal performances remained consistent, Botham's form collapsed. Both were instinctive cricketers, not particularly well served by the demands of captaincy. The hope will be that Stokes' capabilities, especially at this stage of his career, will prove to be broader.
Botham was much younger when he accepted the job. At 24, he was England's youngest captain since Ivo Bligh almost a century earlier. He was supremely confident he could do the job, but he was not about to curb a boisterous lifestyle, and struggled with the politics and relationship issues that forever raise their heads. But his captaincy involved back-to-back series against a brilliant West Indies side and a Centenary Test against Australia; the death of Kenny Barrington, England's team manager, tragically robbed him of one of his most trusted confidants and he regarded Lord's as a nest of vipers.
Botham duly resigned before he was sacked, but forever rejected the notion that the burden of the captaincy had been too much and described his subsequent return to form under Mike Brearley as "a coincidence". As president of Durham, he will have ample opportunity to present Stokes with a more defiant interpretation of his captaincy than history often allows.
Flintoff was appointed even though his coach, Duncan Fletcher, harboured doubts from the outset about his tactical nous, man-management skills and self-discipline. He later revealed that he suffered from depression during the 2006-07 Ashes defeat and admitted to heavy drinking bouts, some of which affected his performance in practice sessions. He was older, at 28, but also struggled to find influential allies.
Stokes is unlikely to spend too much time analysing the lessons of history. That's a relief. "I've had to deal with comparisons to Andrew Flintoff and Sir Ian Botham since I was 18 or 19. And I've always said I'm not trying to be either of them, just Ben Stokes."
He still has regular meetings to discuss his mental health and he feels that, far from being a vulnerability that could be exposed in the job, it gives him an empathy that could be lacking in a younger leader. Senior players fearing burn-out during a non-stop international schedule or young players struggling to make the transition to international cricket could find an understanding leader (he fully expects to keep playing all formats) and, in that empathy, he very much fits the spirit of the age.
"A lot of on-the-field and off-field stuff I've been through is a positive for me now, having been given the responsibility of being the captain, because I feel like I can relate to anything going forward. If any of the players might be struggling with something I have been that person in the dressing-room. The hardest thing to do in the first place is to talk to somebody."
With England bottom of the World Test Championship, for Stokes the only way is up. There have been many worse England sides, their recent appalling record appearing to be as much a lack of focus and togetherness between players and administrators as a lack of ability. In a host of interviews, he repeated his desire for players to be totally committed to the common good. It is a shame he didn't broaden it out to include everybody else. But self-interest will have no place in his England side.
"I think a great starting point for me is I want everybody to be selfless in the decisions they make and that every decision they make is with the intention of to win the game for England. It's always been my main goal playing for England - thinking about what I need to do to win this game when I have the responsibility on my shoulders - whatever stage of the game it is.
"That's always been my main priority - personal performances, individual performances have never been at the top of my priority list. It's always been the end result of the game which is winning. So I'd love to have 10 people with the same mentality as me."
That would be a ride worth taking.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps