Untroubled by Botham and Flintoff comparisons, Ben Stokes makes clear he will captain England his own way

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Untroubled by Botham and Flintoff comparisons, Ben Stokes makes clear he will captain England his own way
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On Ben Stokes’s first day as England captain, it was abundantly clear that he would be doing the job in his own, unique style.

His day, rightly, started with the short trip from his home in County Durham to the ground where he made his name, the Riverside, not Lord’s, where so many of his predecessors have been unveiled. A trip there can wait a month.

He then changed into a tracksuit, rather than the blazer that he will wear out to toss up against New Zealand four weeks tomorrow.

And in his very first interview, for a behind-the-scenes feature on the ECB’s Instagram page, he said: “This is my first day on the job… apparently I’ve got to do this kind of stuff now, so you’ll be following me around while I’m doing my media.”

Stokes has never been a cricketer — or, indeed, character — shackled by the weight of history and precedent. That was on show in his next interview, with the BBC, when he provided a reminder that comparisons with Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff have followed him around since his teens, and had not bothered him once.

He is not about to change that now he has assumed the one job these other talismanic, charismatic all-rounders could not quite manage.

If the obvious comparisons are with Beefy and Fred, Stokes is a bit different to the two captains he played under, Alastair Cook and Joe Root. Their trajectory through life, as long-anointed future England captains, had been pretty smooth. Reaching the captaincy was a dream realised, and a long term awaited them.

Stokes only became interested in the job when he became the obvious candidate, and may only do it until someone else emerges.

At his unveiling, Stokes spoke about a tumultuous journey, and had to address previous indiscretions (which he did very well).

“There’s been plenty of other experiences as well that I could have felt chew me up, swallow me up and that’s me done,” he said. “I never let that happen. I guess I’m too stubborn to let anything get too on top of me.”

 (AP)
(AP)

What he shares with Cook and Root is that he ascended to the Test team young, and therefore has barely any captaincy experience; indeed his only first-class game in charge was standing in for Root against West Indies in 2020 (England lost; Stokes played well, and was brave, dropping Stuart Broad).

So there is not much to go on when predicting how he will play this. He preached selflessness and straightforwardness, and said his vision aligned with that of Rob Key, the new managing director.

It is clear that he will need a coach who respects the players’ voices but provides a steady hand on the tactical tiller (things could move fast next week with that post, with interviews on Monday and Tuesday). It is also obvious he wants senior voices around him, and a vice-captain — a role he cherished — before long.

Stokes showed, too, that life’s ups and downs have made him a more caring, generous and vulnerable figure than the tough-guy persona lets on.

There was no shirking the scale of the task facing him. Since he spoke, the ICC released their annual update of Test rankings. England are sixth (generous), but their rating (88) is their lowest since 1995. According to that measure, he is taking over at an even lower ebb than Nasser Hussain did in 1999, when England were booed after defeat to New Zealand.

Winning one game in 17 is nowhere near good enough for the people we have in our team.

Stokes’s first assignment is against the Black Caps, who announced a formidable squad overnight and have beaten England in their last three series.

“If we’re completely realistic, winning one game in 17 is nowhere near good enough for the people we have in our team,” said Stokes.

“What we can do is say there’s only one way to go from here, which is up. I’ve been a part of that over the past couple of years, it’s not a dig at any individual, we know we’ve not been good enough, we’ve not played to the standard we know we can. It is about understanding that and then seeing what can we do to fix it.

“I also understand that things don’t just happen overnight, I can’t expect it to just click and all of a sudden we’re No1 in a year’s time.”

Stokes is right that England have better players than recent results suggest. The talent is there, but performances have been poor. He is already making tweaks, like moving to No6 and recalling senior bowlers, and some new faces seem inevitable.

Can inspirational leadership help make it more than the sum of its parts?

Stokes will hardly have a simpler assignment as England captain than his maiden media appearance. But with some rough edges smoothed by life’s journey, this was an authentic performance to calm those with fears over what is to come.

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