Ben Stokes smiled as he revealed his wife’s reaction to him becoming the captain charged with dragging England away from rock bottom of the Test cricketing world.
‘It was funny,’ said Stokes, relaxed in his home environment of Durham. ‘When I told Clare she was like ‘oh no.’ But all the family are very proud. When I told my mam she said she needed to go away for 10 minutes before ringing me back. Just the emotion of it all.’
There was emotion, too, as Stokes thought about the biggest influence on his career, his father Ged who died, aged 65, of brain cancer nearly 18 months ago. ‘He followed me everywhere,’ said Stokes. ‘Watched every game. He thought he knew better than me. If he was still around he’d be telling me how to do this job already! But, yeah, he’d be very proud.’
Ben Stokes was officially unveiled as England’s new Test team captain on Tuesday
There will be plenty of people on hand to tell Stokes how to deal with the challenge of bucking history and making a success, as a genuine all-rounder and multi-format player, of the England captaincy. But clearly he will be very much his own man. ‘I will go with my gut,’ he said plainly.
This was an impressive first appearance in front of the media as captain from Stokes, from his desire for ‘selfless’ players in his own image, to the insistence that everyone was starting with a ‘clean slate’ and his passion both for Test cricket and making England ‘great again.’
There was also a clear indication that, far from reducing his bowling to relieve the pressures on his workload, he intends to have the ball in his hand as much as ever, moving down the order from five to six so he can concentrate equalling on batting and bowling.
The England all-rounder made an impressive first appearance in front of the media
But above all there was a maturity in his reaction to concerns over whether this all-action character and no stranger to controversy can cope with the scrutiny and responsibility that will come with high office, particularly as he took a four-month break last year to prioritise his mental health.
‘I took that break because I needed to,’ said Stokes. ‘I spoke with someone (a therapist) and I will continue to do so but I don’t see that as a negative.
‘I see not only that but lots of stuff I’ve been through, on the field and off it, as positives because I feel I can relate to anything going forward. If any of the young players, or older ones, are struggling with anything then I’ve been that person in the dressing room. I hope their attitude to me doesn’t change now because I’m captain.’
Stokes’ finest moment in an England Test shirt came against Australia at Headingley in 2019
Stokes insisted the England captaincy had never been a driving ambition even after he had been given a brief taste of it as Joe Root’s deputy in Test cricket in 2020 against West Indies, a defeat, and in a 50-over Covid emergency last year, an emphatic victory over Pakistan.
‘It was never a goal of mine when I was younger to be captain of England,’ he admitted. ‘But that didn’t mean I was going to say no if the opportunity presented itself. It wasn’t something I said yes to straightaway. You’ve got to consider a lot of things that come with it.
‘I had some time to myself to think about it but in the end it was a very easy decision. When I say time to think I don’t actually do that for very long so it probably took about a minute to say yes I reckon!’
That was delivered with a smile, too, but Stokes knows those concerns over this appointment in place of his great friend Joe Root, particularly whether it is feasible to remain an all-format player, are genuine. ‘I’ve always loved playing in all formats and now being captain will add to that,’ he said.
Stokes inherits the armband from Joe Root, with England having just one win in 17 matches
‘But there will be conversations with Rob Key and Eoin Morgan about the amount of white-ball cricket I play going forward. The schedule is pretty hectic so, yes, we do have to be sensible. Not just with me but other players who will be playing Test cricket and want to do white-ball too. There’ll be four or five guys having to think about what they play.’
Clearly a man who turned his back on the Indian Premier League this year will, refreshingly, continue putting Test cricket first. ‘It’s just always been No1,’ he said. ‘It’s the best format, the purest form of the game. The feeling you get after winning a game that has lasted five days is like no other in the game. It’s proper hard work and things can change during the game, it’s so up and down. That’s why I love it so much.’
Now the hard work, and seven demanding Tests this summer against New Zealand, India and South Africa, starting with the first of three against the country of his birth at Lord’s on June 2, will begin.
‘Winning just one game in the last 17 is nowhere near good enough with the people we have in this team,’ added Stokes. ‘What we can say is that there’s only one way to go from here and that’s up. I’m not having a dig at anyone, I’ve been a part of it and we know we haven’t been good enough. It’s not been of the standard we know we can reach.
‘Now it’s about understanding that and saying ‘what can we do to fix this?’ It won’t all happen overnight. I can’t just click my fingers and all of a sudden we’ll be No1 in the world in a year’s time. That would be fantastic if we were! But I’m very excited about my role in hopefully making the England Test team great again. It’s a big goal of mine and I’m really looking forward to it.’