Ben Stokes’ aggressive honesty as captain could be just what England need

“When I was younger, it was never my goal to be England Captain.” And with that, if only for an afternoon, there was a sense of reassurance. That Ben Stokes and his aggressive honesty might be just what the game needs right now.

This first orchestrated murmur of a test captain is usually the most brazen and therefore the least instructive. Promises of future success, scalable highlights on the horizon, blueprints for cricket brands, and other such speeches you wish had been confined to their idiosyncratic corner of high-performance Instagram.

As such, they are largely ignorable, save for their sole true purpose of providing the latter of the “before and after” comparison to reinforce the “two-office presidential tariff” that this job demands of its incumbents. Joe Root’s declaration in 2017, which took place in Sheffield, was one of enthusiasm and potential driven by Root the personality. His resignation last month, while being smothered by those truly close to him, was a press release that spoke only of pain.

It’s probably how it will end for Stokes, because it always has been. His steely and inner (and outer) struggle can only mitigate that. It may be a role never coveted and never promised, breaking a line of ordained FECs, but it began here on Chester-le-Street Tuesday with an understanding of privilege and emotional appeal, along with the Recognition of the damage caused to the occupier and the security of his close circle. When Stokes relayed Root’s decision to step down to his wife Clare, she replied in return, “Oh no, oh no, oh no,” fully aware of what was to come. “In the end,” Stokes mused, “it was a very easy decision. It’s not a job you can turn down.”

It took his mother 10 minutes to process the message before calling him back, the emotion was so overwhelming. It goes without saying that it was a call even a parent dreams of and there was no doubt Stokes didn’t have that conversation twice. His father Ged passed away in late 2020, but Stokes could still imagine how this particular chat would have gone once the pride was registered: “[He always] thought he knew better than me. If he were still there and I told him, he would tell me how to do this job.”

He should probably get used to that. He will not be without advice, most of it unsolicited. And it’s getting harder than ever to quell the outside noise saying something considering how much gossip he’s provoked so far.

That will be easy early on, especially as the hard work begins in the dressing room. Stokes says he wants “10 people with the same mentality as me”, which is a good first step, although the selflessness he sees as his strength and wants to instill in the rest comes from a quality that remains, at least from an English perspective inviolable. However, his message is that this is a clean slate. He only wants good cricketers. Only innocent cricketers.

“A great way to put it is that we haven’t played a game yet. All your previous performances, good or bad, we’re just starting over here. The role I’m taking starts today but starts massively on June 2nd.

“The team I pick or we pick along with the coach and the other guys will be this is a fresh start. We picked you because we feel you are one of England’s best players. Everything that happened before, don’t worry, we’re starting over here.”

That’s perhaps the hallmark of Stoke’s career so far: turn the page and start over. Whether it was the infamous Lions tour of 2013 when he was sent home in disgrace, the Caribbean locker he fist dented, the last time in the 2016 T20 final, Bristol, the subsequent trial and even the mental break – everyone was far away from him that he climbed higher.

At some point one wonders how much turmoil the human spirit can take. And the fear of such a talismanic all-rounder as captain can have an almost carcinogenic effect by losing one’s strengths. For him, however, the scar tissue of the missteps has strengthened his whole.

“Back then (particularly during the aftermath of his Bristol street fight) no – I could never have imagined sitting at a table and speaking as an England captain.

“I’ve always tried to see all experiences, be they good or bad, they’re always something I can learn from. You know, everyone will still be talking about the T20 World Championship finals. There were also many other experiences where I could have felt them chew me up, choke me up and be done with it. I never allowed that. I think I’m too stubborn to let anything overwhelm me.”

Like those before him, we could revisit those words later, whether at the end of the year or years ahead, and indulge in our how it began and how it ended fetish. But as he posed for a few final photos before disappearing into Chester-le-Street to train with his Durham team-mates, it was hard not to believe him. Or at least not believing it could be any different with him. Ben Stokes’ aggressive honesty as captain could be just what England need


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