Mail Sport columnist Nasser Hussain travelled to India during the IPL for an extensive interview with Ben Stokes.
As part of his documentary on leadership for Sky, Hussain has spoken to some of the biggest names in sport.
This is what happened when Nasser met Ben….
NASSER HUSSAIN: You were a very loyal vice-captain and friend to Joe Root when he was captain. Were there any times during Joe’s time in charge when you could have stepped in and said ‘come on Joe, can we do things a bit differently?’ Because the change since you’ve taken over has been remarkable.
BEN STOKES: No. The relationship we have on and off the field goes back a long time. We played against each other when I first moved to England and started playing for Cumbria. And then we did all the England age-group stuff together. So I would have done anything on the field for him when he was captain.
Ben Stokes (above) sat down with Mail Sport columnist Nasser Hussain ahead of the Ashes
The England Test captain has enjoyed a fruitful first year at the helm alongside to head coach Brendon McCullum (left), inspiring his side with an aggressive and revolutionary style of play
And I also told him exactly what I thought as his vice-captain. But I obviously understood and respected whatever he went with because he was captain. I always supported him even if I thought otherwise on different things.
And, especially during the Covid years, I did try to make myself more available to him, not just from an on-field perspective. I don’t think anyone really has an understanding of what Joe went through to lead that side during Covid.
England batters such as Jonny Bairstow (above) soon profited from the ‘Bazball’ style
Joe had everyone’s backing as captain and I just hope people realise what he had to deal with, especially in that two-year period.
NASSER: Loyalty is obviously very important to you. You didn’t text Rob Key about the captaincy until after Joe resigned. Would you have taken the job had he been axed?
BEN: Joe spoke to me before the news was announced and said he was going to step down, but if it had been a case of Rob Key just saying they wanted to go in a different direction I don’t think it would have changed my opinion about the captaincy.
I might have questioned the decision to do that out of loyalty to Joe but he had decided it was the right thing to do for himself and the team and he was very open and honest about his reasons for doing that. He definitely did the right thing because he said it was affecting not just him but his family.
NASSER: Say Rob had gone down a different route and not aligned you with Brendon McCullum, which has been perfect. If he had gone for, say, Gary Kirsten or Justin Langer to become coach, would the captaincy have held the same appeal for you? Could you have done the same things you have done with a different set-up?
Hussain (right) pictured alongside Stokes (left) ahead of England’s clash with Australia in 2018
Stokes insists he has always been loyal to star batsman and ex-England captain Joe Root (right)
BEN: Well, as soon as Brendon was mentioned it was a case of putting everyone else out of my mind. I knew he would be absolutely perfect for where I wanted to take the team having played against him over the years and knowing what he was about.
I’m not saying it wouldn’t have worked with another coach because you never know. But in terms of coming in and having an impact straightaway it was definitely a lot easier having Brendon as coach.
NASSER: There may have been alignment. Is there always agreement? Do you bounce things off each other?
BEN: We have discussions around selection and what we should do but that’s generally over WhatsApp rather than these Zoom calls and Microsoft Teams meetings. The transparency between us just makes everything a lot easier.
Rob’s very understanding and knows it’s me and Baz who have to deal with the team. There are others, too, who bounce ideas around but at the end of the day it’s me and Baz who have the final say on who we pick.
The burden of Test captaincy and a string of disappointing results was taking its toll on Root
The skipper kicked off his stunning first year in charge with a 3-0 series win over New Zealand
NASSER: At the start of all this you scoffed when Ian Ward asked you on Sky whether you would be like Nasser’s England side and play for the draw. You talked the talk and then walked the walk because you’ve won 10 out of 12 Tests and haven’t drawn any. Why is that mentality so important?
BEN: If all you’re ever thinking about is ‘how do we win this game?’ throughout the whole five days then you are doing something right. It just breeds the mentality into people of ‘everything I need to do must influence this game in a positive way.’
The mind-set of ‘as long as we don’t lose’ is something I just don’t want this England team to have. So it’s clear what type of player you have to be to get into this England side.
And hopefully we can make that approach filter down towards the county game, academies and grassroots cricket. Everything we do is aimed at influencing the game in our favour but if it doesn’t work in our favour that’s okay as well.
NASSER: So you’re not just picking on ability. You’re picking on character and personality?
Captain Stokes boasts one of the best win percentages in world cricket ahead of the Ashes
A superb batsman and bowler, the 31-year-old has also shown incredible leadership in the field
BEN: Definitely. Look at the Trent Bridge game against New Zealand last year. Two or three years back we might well have sat in there and played for the draw because that was what the game was.
But within five minutes of our second innings starting everybody was like ‘we’re going to go for this.’ And that’s the character and personality because that’s all everyone was bothered about and it took any individual thoughts out of it.
It was a new team and a new captain and people could have nestled in, got a score and moved on to the next game. But what would it have done for us to leave that game with a draw? We wouldn’t have shown the world what we wanted to do.
So we want players who understand the bigger picture and the main goal which is to always try to win a game of cricket. And I think everyone in the squad has that.
NASSER: You said at an early stage to Michael Atherton that you were inspired by the Brad Pitt character in the film Fury. He never asked anyone to do something he wasn’t prepared to do himself. Is that why you have batted the way you have? Because if you are asking your team to play so positively you have to do it yourself?
Stokes says his captaincy is inspired by Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Wardaddy in the 2014 film Fury
Star bowling duo Stuart Broad (left) and James Anderson (right) have flourished under Stokes
BEN: Yes. Having spoken and said how I wanted everyone to play if I’d then gone out and nudged and noodled it around I know people could have looked at me in the dressing room and said ‘he’s asking us to do this but he’s not exactly going out there and expressing himself.’
I knew I had to show the team, not only in my words but also my actions, that it is actually okay to get out in some of the ways I have. That’s had a huge effect.
NASSER: What about having someone in your team who could be a top player but wants to do it a bit differently? Say you had a young Alastair Cook, Michael Atherton or Jonathan Trott who wants to bat the old-fashioned way and grind out a big score? Is there room for a person like that?
BEN: There are players who have played a certain way in their whole careers and that’s them. That’s fine. I’m not saying that’s not the way to play. But in this day and age and while I’m captain and Baz is coach that is not something we’re looking for.
We want players who will go out there and put pressure on the bowlers straightaway. Look at Harry Brook and how he’s taken the world by storm. And he’s not really looked like he’s got out of fourth gear to be honest. Those are the type of players that are going to be noticed while we are in charge.
The England captain doesn’t want his batsmen to show patience at the crease, as Michael Atherton (left) and Alastair Cook (right) once did during their successful careers with the bat
Stokes hasn’t been afraid to make bold calls, such as handing Josh Tongue his debut this week
In three or four years time you might have a new captain and coach who want to go back to the other way Test cricket can be played. And maybe those type of players will have an opportunity then. But right here and now it’s pretty obvious the sort of players we want and how they can get noticed.
We’ve fed that back to the counties and their coaches and directors of cricket. It would be unfair not to let people in county cricket who want to play for England know what we expect.
Ben Duckett – another new addition under Stokes – celebrated on Friday after scoring a century in England’s one-off Test with Ireland
NASSER: Let’s talk about one of those two defeats. In Wellington by just one run earlier this year. How does that sit with you now? Because the thing I know about Ben Stokes more than anything is that you’re a winner. That game was there to be grabbed but you lost it?
BEN: It was so hard being disappointed about being on the losing side in that game.
Getting down to where we were on the fifth day was something we just didn’t imagine after the first two days but when it happened it was just like ‘this is mad.’ Even the crowd were thinking ‘wow, what have we just witnessed?’ So that’s the kind of game you want to be involved in.
I hope when I say ‘we don’t care about losing’ people don’t think we don’t care. I want to win every game. Everyone wants to win every game. I hate losing. But when you look at that game for what it was, and losing by just one run, then it’s very hard to feel disappointed.
NASSER: I think I said right at the beginning of your captaincy that trouble followed you around at the start of your career. Is that fair?
Stokes and his England side suffered a narrow one-run defeat against New Zealand in February
The captain vowed to stay positive after the tough defeat, having only fallen short by one run
BEN: Yeah I guess it does just loom all around me. I get that from my dad. He was the same as me. You can blame him for that…
NASSER: So when did the penny drop? Andy Flower sent you home from an early Lions tour and said ‘you don’t want to play for England. You just want to p*** it up with your mates.’ Was he challenging you to prove him wrong?
BEN: To this day I’m adamant Andy knew exactly what he was doing and what he was saying to me. I don’t think he was just trying to assert his dominance. I could have just sat there nodding and taken it but hearing that come out of his mouth ignited something in me. I said ‘you don’t know me, you don’t know what I want to do.’
I can be a pretty outlandish person but when it comes to my cricket I’m very serious and I think there was a spark there to prove him wrong. Mind you, when I did get into the England side I didn’t have the balls to go back to him and say ‘I told you so….’
Stokes will hope England’s ‘Bazball’ style can bring their first Ashes series triumph since 2015
He is preparing to go head-to-head with Australia Test captain Pat Cummins later this month
NASSER: Did captaincy come at the right time for you? You were 30 and you’d been through a lot – like that last over in Kolkata in the World T20 final, Bristol, huge highs but also dealing with injury and mental health issues…
BEN: I think the things I’ve been through make me more relatable to people, not just from a cricket perspective but a day to day perspective. I feel I have an understanding of quite a lot of things that can happen to people.
If anything it’s all made me more open and honest with myself which allows me to be more open and honest with individuals. I still struggle with certain things, like I find speaking to an individual harder than speaking to a group because I worry I might say something wrong to an individual.
But being relatable does make captaincy a bit easier I guess…