Do not let series defeat fool you, Ben Stokes’ captaincy is as good as Mike Brearley’s

Mike Brearley in 1980
Mike Brearley was more dictatorial than Ben Stokes, but an equally impressive man-manager - Getty Images/Patrick Eagar

Even after losing this Test series in India, his first series defeat in charge, Ben Stokes should still be recognised for what he is: one of the most successful captains England have ever had.

Michael Brearley is widely and justifiably considered to be the most successful England Test captain, but he too had a dark hour overseas. England under Stokes are 3-1 down in India. Under Brearley in Australia in 1979-80 they lost 3-0.

Overall, however, Brearley and Stokes have won a higher proportion of their Tests in charge than any other England captains who have had comparable reigns. Brearley won 18 games, lost four and drew nine; Stokes’ record is 14 wins, eight defeats and one draw.

Brearley and Stokes reached the summit by very different methods: Brearley by refining the traditional approach, Stokes by pioneering a new style of captaincy, or even a whole new style of Test cricket, which has embraced the best features of the white-ball game that Brearley never knew.

Here’s how they compare.


When Brearley was the England captain from 1977 to 1981, he operated in a very different society, which was still to a large extent hierarchical. He began his county career with Middlesex as an amateur who changed in a separate dressing-room from the pros. These social divisions consolidated a captain’s authority: a professional was never going to mount a leadership challenge. But being a Cambridge Blue was not enough to become a superlative captain: Brearley underpinned his captaincy with a capacity to listen, a quick intellect which enabled him to control dressing-room banter, and mental strength. He was softly spoken (there were no expletives) but had an iron fist.

Stokes has been leading England in an era that is often described as egalitarian or meritocratic. Had he played in Brearley’s era or earlier he might never have been given the chance of captaining any team, especially after he had landed himself in trouble with the law during his larrikin years. But having been there and done that, Stokes has developed the empathy to realise how others feel, and goes out of his way to be considerate (eg leaving the team bus to be with Rehan Ahmed when he was detained at Rajkot airport with a visa problem). Unlike an old-style captain, who commanded players, Stokes never asks anyone to do anything he would not do himself.

Ben Stokes with Rehan Ahmed
Stokes' support for junior players, like Rehan Ahmed, is a cornerstone of his leadership - AFP/ Punit Paranjpe

Body language

Brearley was ensconced upon a throne. He would point to one of his subjects to go here or there. He would not have dreamed of running to the bowler to confer; he sent instructions through his fielders.

Stokes whizzes around the field, everywhere but slip, and scarcely stands still for a moment, energising everyone. Mostly he fields at mid-off and confers with his bowler almost every ball. In a new development he will change the field without telling the bowler, although the plan is likely already to have been discussed. The most important feature of Stokes’s body language is that there is no negativity. He is always upbeat and never gets down on a bowler for a bad ball or a fielder for a dropped catch. The exception is when he misfields himself and is furious.

In dealing with opponents and umpires, any comparison is in Stokes’s favour. Being a reformed bad boy himself, he is chivalrous in dealing with all opponents and umpires. When an umpire gave a decision which England in the field disagreed with, it was not unknown in Brearley’s day for the attitude of tea-pots to be struck as overt expressions of disappointment (there were no ICC match referees watching). Never a visible sign of disagreement under Stokes.

Mike Brearley in the field
On the field, Brearley was more demonstrative than Stokes - Getty Images/Adrian Murrell


Brearley and Stokes skin the cat in completely opposite ways. Brearley’s approach was to keep a lid on the batsman, to clamp him down until he got out – which, with Bob Willis and Ian Botham in his attack, and a Dukes ball on English pitches, usually happened sooner rather than later.

Batting, in Stokes’s era, has become a completely different game. An opposing Test batsman now has all the shots, rehearsed for each of the three formats, and can hit the ball to all parts in the air and on the ground: thus India’s 22 year-old opener Yashasvi Jaiswal. Keeping a lid on batsmen is impossible, so the strategy is to get them out. And here Stokes’s inventiveness has taken captaincy to new levels, as when he is prepared to give away singles to keep a new or lesser batsman on strike.

Brearley came up with an extreme form of the in-out field at Old Trafford in the 1981 Ashes: he encircled Allan Border, facing spin, with three men around the bat and the other six on the boundary to save two. Stokes, to take wickets, changes the field several times per over. He has invented one new field-placing in particular: on the boundary directly behind a spin-bowler, to cover the hit to long-off and long-on. The much increased athleticism of England fielders also allows Stokes to post a close-catcher, in Ollie Pope, who can cover forward and backward short-leg. It is some compensation when dealing with batsmen who reverse-sweep, ramp and scoop as they never did in Brearley’s time.

The ultimate challenge for the Test captain is defending a modest target. Brearley was masterly in clamping Australia down until they cracked at Headingley and Edgbaston in 1981. Before the decision review system there was much greater scope for kidology: to surround the batsman, with the fielders (no stump-mic) telling him the pitch is a minefield, frequent appealing and raising the stress levels of the umpire, which made him more likely to raise his finger. And Brearley, if DRS had been invented, would surely have used it more rationally than Stokes who seems to react more emotionally. But Stokes was masterly too, if not in the fourth Test in Ranchi, then when India chased 231 in the Hyderabad Test and his ingenuity enabled England to win by 28 runs.

Ultimately, their view of captaincy is similar: the secret, as in life, is making the most of resources, and especially of younger players. Brearley wrote: “In short, a captain must get the best out of his team by helping them to play together without suppressing flair and uniqueness.”

Stokes might not have read The Art of Captaincy but he was on the same page after the fourth Test in Ranchi. “That’s who I am as a captain,” he said. “It’s allowing these young guys to come into a pretty intimidating situation … and just allowing them the freedom.”