Leadership gamble could make or break Stokes
Ben Stokes is just nine months removed from mental health problems so acute that he announced an indefinite hiatus from cricket. He was such a shell of his free-wheeling self at the Ashes that he bowled 14 no-balls in a single session and fell behind Mitchell Starc, batting at No.9, in the rankings of the world’s finest all-rounders.
And now, with the full extent of England’s red-ball ills still to be diagnosed, never mind treated, newly minted director of cricket Rob Key has seen fit to make him Test captain. To foist such a psychological burden on a tortured soul who has in the past struggled with the grind of touring, let alone the added stresses of leadership, feels not just peculiar, but borderline irresponsible.
No one disputes Stokes’ devotion to the cause. His magisterial summer of 2019, bookended by a World Cup-winning 84 at Lord’s and an unbeaten 135 at Headingley, is irrefutable proof of the levels to which he can rouse himself for his country. But these talismanic moments conceal the fragility beneath.
In Stokes’ world, there is the thinnest of lines between passion and rage. In 2014, he took anger management advice from a sports psychologist, having cost himself a World Twenty20 place with a broken wrist caused by punching a dressing room locker. Four years later he faced renewed claims that he had an issue with his temper during the trial that followed his Bristol nightclub brawl, one culminating in his acquittal on a charge of affray.
There are more recent examples, too. After being taunted from the stands in Johannesburg in 2020, he told one South Africa fan who had likened him to pop star Ed Sheeran: “Say that to my face, you f—— four-eyed c—,” subsequently apologising for his language. Even in the picture-perfect setting of Sydney last winter, he could not resist glowering at a well-watered Australian who dared to call him “fat”.
Stokes’ pattern of behaviour suggests he does not take kindly to being judged. As England captain, though, he will not have much choice in the matter. From the second he leads out his team for the first Test against New Zealand at Lord’s in June, his every move will be subject to merciless scrutiny.
It looks, frankly, like an implosion waiting to happen. Under Joe Root, his excesses could just about be tolerated. But as the man in charge, any diplomatic incident will be magnified tenfold. If his past is any gauge, it will require only a single spark to light that shortest of fuses.
“Do I have a problem with my anger,” Stokes asked, rhetorically, under cross-examination at his Bristol court case. “No.” The full picture is more complex. He acknowledged in an earlier interview that he had been a tempestuous teenager, breaking a bone when he lashed out at a fire door.
It is against this backdrop that he has become a paradox as a public persona. When pictures emerged of his hand around his wife Clare’s neck at the Professional Cricketers’ Association Awards in 2019, many were quick to draw the worst possible interpretation, only for Stokes to deny any malign intent. He decried any claims to the contrary as “totally irresponsible,” while Clare also insisted the couple had been acting playfully. But the fact that he creates such a recipe for controversy and misunderstanding is sure to be exploited by the opponents he confronts as captain.