Saturday, May 7, 2022

From the brawl in a Bristol nightclub to becoming England captain, how Ben Stokes turned his career around

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Stokes’ zeal for self-improvement, his unparalleled fitness regime and his exploits on the pitch have made him an excellent choice to succeed Joe Root in becoming England’s 81st Test captain, writes Chris Stocks

In between were the highest moments, namely the golden summer of 2019, when he inspired England to victory in the epic World Cup final against New Zealand at Lord’s, and his incredible Headingley Ashes exploits just weeks later.

Ben Stokes has made a remarkable transformation since the Bristol street brawl in September 2017 that left him fearing for his career – it took less than five years to go from public enemy No 1 to captain of the 81st England Test.

But there have also been crushing lows, including the ordeal of the post-Bristol trial where he was acquitted of the brawl, the death of his father Ged in December 2020 and a prolonged mental break from cricket last summer.

It’s no surprise that Stokes has needed some time off, given the strains he’s endured off the field in recent years, including numerous injuries, as well as coping with the responsibility of being England’s talisman in all formats.

However, the fact that he survived it all and is now being appointed Test Captain is a testament to his character, hard work and perseverance.

Forget comparisons to Sir Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff, iconic all-rounders for whom England captaincy proved ill-fated. In terms of leadership figures, Stokes is probably the only credible one in English cricket at the moment given the chaos left behind by a rudderless England & Wales Cricket Board barely functioning, with no chairman, a chief executive in Tom Harrison imminent and no head coach either for the Test or men’s white ball team.

A manager who has worked closely with Stokes for a number of years as a senior member of England’s management team has no doubts that he will be a successful captain, he says I: “Ben has come a long way as a character since Bristol with his training and attitude towards performance and he will be good with the younger players and encourage them that if they fail it is on their terms.

“He will do well in the group and I think he will always try to encourage a positive style of play and speak positively to them. He will always try to do things his way. It will be interesting to see how he goes tactically, but I can’t imagine him wanting the team to go into his shell either. It’s going to be a sight to behold!”

Former England head coach Trevor Bayliss, who spoke before Stokes stepped in as captain for the first Test of summer 2020 when Joe Root was on paternity leave, also praised his leadership skills.

“He’s like [white-ball captain] Eoin Morgan in that he is a leader of men and when he speaks everyone listens. You just feel attracted to him. The reputation in which other players hold him, that’s half the battle.”

England lost that test to the West Indies in Southampton two years ago. But Stokes fared much better last summer when he took over a second-row squad for a one-day series against Pakistan at short notice following a Covid outbreak, which they won 3-0.

That no one questions whether he’s the right character to be a Test captain after what happened in Bristol speaks volumes about how far he’s come.

Losing the Test vice-captain afterwards hurt Stokes deeply. But it’s telling that he regained it shortly before the 2019 Ashes, after texting Harrison asking for reinstatement.

His on-field exploits at the World Cup would have helped. But Stokes would not have been pushed back into a leadership role by the ECB if he hadn’t also made great strides off the field.

It’s hard to believe it’s been less than four years since he was booed by fans in Nottingham in a test against India in August 2018, just days after he was cleared of the affair at Bristol Crown Court. In a 2020 speech, Stokes admitted: “Walking out on Trent Bridge was absolutely horrible. All I could hear were boos. It’s been a horrible, horrible week.”

In the same interview with ESPNCricinfoStokes revealed what happened in Bristol could actually have been a blessing.

“Thinking that all of that is being taken away from me might be the thing that changed the way I do things,” he said. “I was so close to retiring and just thrown away like that. It sounds silly but could Bristol have been the best thing that happened to me?”

Stokes’ post-Bristol zeal for self-improvement has been manifested in his approach to conditioning. He is already one of the fittest members of the England squad and has taken that to a whole new level over the past four years.

It is summed up by an anecdote from Bayliss during a test against Sri Lanka in Colombo in November 2018, played in temperatures exceeding 40 degrees. “I got on the elevator after dinner Sunday night and it got off,” Bayliss said. “He just got back from the gym. He works that hard.”

Stokes, now 30, has also stopped spending the kind of nights that got him into trouble at Bristol at 2.30am in 2017, in the middle of a day-long series against the West Indies.

“I might go out to dinner, but I don’t go out anymore,” he said. “It’s pointless. You get recognized and then, after someone has had a few vodkas, they feel like they can come to you and say what they feel. Everywhere you go there are people who are ready to target you.”

Stokes has also faced his mental health struggles head-on, admitting where he used to be reluctant to talk about issues, now he doesn’t hesitate to seek support.

It comes after that extended break from cricket last summer, as Stokes admitted on his return to the England squad for Ashes last winter: “I was in a really dark place and had some difficult thoughts.”
It means that after everything he’s been through over the past five years, Stokes is now well-equipped to take on the role of Test captain.

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