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So it begins, the next binge-watch in the Ben Stokes franchise

Phil Walker by Phil Walker
@Phil_Wisden 3 minute read

Phil Walker looks at the new chapter that awaits Ben Stokes, England Test captain.

Captaining England tears chunks out of a man. Atherton was on sleeping tablets by the end of it. Hussain left in tears, as did Vaughan, saying he no longer recognised himself. Pietersen was marched out of a burning building with a blanket over his head, while Strauss left in low dudgeon, worn down and spent. Alastair Cook found the well had run dry. Joe Root found himself scoring celestial hundreds every other weekend and still hating the game by Monday night.

This is what Ben Stokes steps into. It’s at once the proudest moment of his astonishing career, and just another line within it. We’ve all debated through the night who should take over, weighing the pros and cons of each candidate and offering up, with straight faces, various plucky pretenders from county cricket, until the moment Stokes is announced and suddenly we look at the fact in the light of a fresh new day and wonder why it took us so long. Of course, it’s Stokes, obviously. For Stokes, it had to be.

The reservations, humdrum as they are – workload, self-martyrdom, those relentless psychological pressures – are all worthy and legit but at this stage miss the point. Stokes has lugged the game on his shoulders for long enough. He lives with our expectations. Rob Key wasn’t making it up when he said on his first media-facing day that Stokes is the boss in that dressing room and the one they all look to, and that it’s been like that for years. Everyone knew that the Root era was set to the rhythms of Stokes’ personality.

The two are enjoined. Root’s Twitter message, letting us know he’s got his back, was instructive, a further reminder that this is not so much a takeover but a handover. Stokes, for his part, will have seen how Root’s ebullience ebbed away over time, how the job seemed to squeeze him, turning him cautious and tactically timid. He will have noted how Root’s sense of adventure got supplanted by the daily drudge.

At any other point in history, this would be the biggest day, the coming-out ceremony, the culmination of all that’s gone before. But Stokes makes his own running. He’s already won a World Cup, played the innings of the century, and made a couple more millions than strictly necessary. Some will still present this as ‘make or break’ for him, yet he slips into the blazer (dutifully, acceptingly) having ‘made it’ a thousand times over. There’s nothing to break. He is, at 30, one of the game’s true untouchables. This distance from failure’s precipice will protect him in a job that needs him more than he needs it.

He enjoys the trappings and banks the proceeds from a standing in the global game largely of his own making. His Twitter feed today is swathed with sponsors slapping his back via theirs, while the TV production crew documenting his every move will be feeling especially sprightly this week. Stokes had been a Test cricketer for just four years and a good one for two when in February 2017, aged 25, he was bought for £1.7m from a now-defunct IPL franchise – a landmark moment in which a full-beam English cricketer in his prime was released into the wild with the buttoned-up blessing of a terrified establishment. It would be churlish, for sure, to talk of this full-blooded and supremely loyal cricketer as a freelance entity, and yet it’s hard not to see a phenomenon who long ago transcended the old rules to carve out a few of his own.

It’s a tidy coup, then, and a mark of his values, that he’s agreed to take the gig now. When last month he said he had “no ambition” to take the job, it wasn’t just public loyalty to his boy. It spoke of a man if not exactly indifferent to the office, then unmoved by its prestige. Paradoxically, the fact that the job isn’t everything to him makes it a good day for the Test game, and a timely endorsement of its central importance.

Because Ben Stokes has already done it all. He doesn’t need this to prove anything to himself, and it’s doubtful that he’s motivated by a few extra notes on his payslip. It turns out that this cricketer who’s done the lot is motivated by the same stuff that we all are. As Key put it earlier, with a wink, in his refreshingly plain-English way, everyone wants the same thing, to see England’s Test team win a few games of cricket.

The spotlight won’t bother him. He’s lived with scrutiny all his professional life, some of which he’s brought upon himself. It’s easy to forget just how close he came to losing the lot. Since that dark, bleak summer and his emergence from it, Stokes has become less clubbable, more guarded. Like those spirit animals, Botham and Flintoff, with whom he shares some traits (though perhaps not as many as we may think), in recent years he has hunkered down, building a tight team around him, so much the better to withstand the game’s gravitational pull.

So it begins, the next binge-watch in the Stokes franchise. Roll trailer, tease some lines, get the popcorn. The most compelling cricketer of his time kicks off a brand new season – all of it appointment-to-view.

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