Originally appearing in the print magazine in the wake of England’s glorious five days at Lord’s, Phil Walker speaks to England’s newest superstar Ben Stokes.
ENGLAND V NEW ZEALAND, FIRST TEST, DAY ONE
Day one of the international summer. We show up nursing a pre-event hangover. For most of the last 18 months, English cricket has been flung from pillar to blogpost. As another winter accounts for another coach, here’s another interim stopgap. The shift that saw Strauss installed as new boss has been met with snide remarks about committee men and establishment cliques. An online campaign has already begun to sack him. A ball has yet to be bowled.
Another summer’s here. England have won one Test series in four. And here’s the spectre of Pietersen; and there, the prayers for Cook. You’d think England didn’t have any cricketers left. Certainly none worth getting out of bed for. The first shock is that anybody’s turned up at all. Play.
England slump to 30-4. From his spaceship at the Nursery End, Warne berates the top order for being so meek. Ben Stokes, up a place to No.6 after the recent West Indies tour, is now with England’s goldenbat, Joe Root. Four down. If England lose the series they drop to No.7 in the world Test rankings. It’s the 13th over of England’s summer.
“Frustrating would be the best and the only word to use,” says Ben Stokes. “Yeah, things haven’t gone as well for me from Australia, with the opportunities I’ve had.” It’s the Saturday before the Lord’s Test. Holding his eldest child in one hand and a phone in the other, seeking to sum up his England career so far.
The ‘Australia’ Stokes talks about not kicking on from is the Ashes tour of 2013/14. He didn’t actually make the cut for the most recent effort down there, the World Cup campaign, a binary run of scores since returning from self-inflicted injury having seen to that. Statistical evidence – if not quite a surfeit of intuition or daring – was at least on the side of England’s selectors, not that Stokes has any complaints.
“It’s all down to myself. I haven’t, up till now, given myself the best chance to make the most of the opportunities I’ve been given for England, if you know what I mean?” Well, up to a point. In some quarters, the vastness of a staggering maiden Test century at the WACA had made the modest returns which followed look not just miniscule but troubling. The idea that what he did at Perth was something of a beautiful freak, a one-off moment in the merciless sun – the like of which a few other pretenders had managed before slinking off into obscurity – had begun to creep in; in some quarters.
One thing was indisputable. Three knocks from two Tests against India in 2014 had offered up no runs whatsoever. His first boundary in England – a statuesque wrist-rolling hook off Matt Henry to the seventh ball he faces – is met with nervy applause. But a brace of boundaries off Tim Southee and a couple more peeled off Trent Boult, the last an on-the-move punch through straight mid-wicket, and Stokes is away.
What has his international career taught him so far? The answer comes immediately. “The biggest thing for me is to not let the occasion take control of me. Sure, you’re playing for your country, but you’ve played cricket for so long that you [should try to] treat it as just another game.”
Will it ever be possible to make playing for England commonplace? “It’s easier said than done. But international cricket can start and end very quickly. So you don’t want to start thinking that now you’re in, you’re in for the rest of your career. It’s not that easy, and I think a big part of that is not letting the occasion get the better of you. “If you wanna be there, you’ve got to play how you’ve always played, and [in my case] to play the way I play for Durham all the time. I think I took that with me to the West Indies, and it helped. I don’t think I had that [awareness] in the series last year against India.”
Against the West Indies in the first Test at Antigua, Stokes had been 70 not out overnight. He’d climbed into a tired attack to punish some rank bad bowling and post his first Test match fifty post-Perth. A real opportunity was there for him to make the century to nail his place for the summer while rounding up a few words to shove down a few people’s throats. There aren’t many ambitious 23-year-olds on the cusp of international integration who would have thought otherwise. Ben Stokes is his own version.
“I was 70 not out overnight and we were ahead of the game, and I felt like if I could face another 40 balls here and get another 50 or 60 runs, rather than scratching around looking to get to my hundred, then we’d be in a really good position.” But what about securing your place with a century? “Of course I had an eye on the hundred,” he says. “But I wanted to get there being really positive and aggressive and trying to take the game away from them. That’s how I like to play.” Ten minutes into the second day, he slashes one hard and flat to backward point.
A flurry of fours by Root takes them to lunch at 113-4. The new-look middle order has brought England back into the match with a counter-attack that proves, somewhat paradoxically, Andrew Strauss’s contention that you can’t engineer a sexy, attacking brand of cricket that the punters will just have to fall for; its potential is either there in the hands of those who can deliver it, or it’s ungraspable. Root and Stokes have known each other since they were sparring kids in opposing county teams. “He was always phenomenal,” Stokes recalls of the other. “In fact when he was younger he couldn’t actually hit the ball off the square. But once he got strong he was always going to be as good as he is. He seems to have been around the England team for a long, long time, but he hasn’t actually. He’s amazing in all forms of the game.”
It’s not just these two coming through from that era. “On the last tour,” he adds, “there was myself, Jos [Buttler], Joe, who all played [England] under 19s together. And then the game against Ireland [a one-off ODI in May], there was four or five more of us from that under 19 team. It’s good that so many of us who represented England at that level have gone on.”
The pair push on through the afternoon session. Stokes explores the region straight of mid-wicket, punching arcing inswingers with a straight bat, his stance stately before uncoiling into impact. He is standing noticeably taller at the crease, loitering on leg stump for the one into the pads, a more assured set-up that negates the left-hander’s tendency – and one shared by Stokes in the past – to over-balance to the off-side; and when they throw it wider, out come the hands. Another clip off Southee brings up his fifty from 55 balls. He follows with a flashing cover-drive.
When Ben Stokes was growing up in Cumbria, playing at Cockermouth CC, or knocking about at school, marking time until the next game, or listening to tales of his dad’s bloody years as a rugby league pro back in New Zealand where Stokes spent his formative years, he didn’t really have heroes. He never needed to emulate or copy some idol or other. If he fell to anyone, it was the outlying tearaway with the fastest hands in the south, Herschelle Gibbs. Why him? “Gun fielder and he could hit it out the park.” Gibbs was also something of a people’s champion. Rode the line in search of individual expression. It carries echoes.
AOC has interviewed Stokes a few times. It’s a laugh every single time. He’s much quicker and smarter than the perception. One of the most fun games is listening in to those cogs whirring in his brain as he strives to say ‘the right thing’ when all he really wants to offer is the unvarnished truth as he sees it. This is Stokes on the media: “Yeah, I started off saying what I thought people wanted to hear but now I just say what I want.”
He rarely holds his tongue on the field either. Back on that West Indies tour, while his pantomime stand-off with Marlon Samuels had most of us in stitches, it threatened to spill over into something else. The infamous temper may have been pushed to the limit but if he blew, he blew in the dressing room, and no lockers were hurt in the making of this Test series.
“I won’t lie here,” Stokes says, sounding spiky for the first time. “There was obviously tension between us. I wouldn’t say I’ll be sitting down to have a beer with him any time soon.”
His Durham and now England teammate Mark Wood, who’s known him since he was a teenager, was watching on from the dressing room. “Fiery, he’s fiery, Ben Stokes. I think Marlon got under his skin a little bit. I think Stokesy managed to keep his cool very well. I was surprised he didn’t deck him! I’m sure he had something planned as well, but I’ll leave that to the imagination! He’ll have the last laugh…”
Stokes’ combustibility is no longer so spontaneous. “I used to think I was doing it because I thought I had to, d’you know what I mean? So I thought, I’ve got this thing, what’s the word, when people know I’ve got a temper…” Perception? “Yeah, this perception that I’m a certain way, so I was almost thinking, ‘I’ve got to do it’ rather than just letting my emotions come out naturally. Now the best performances I’ve had have come when it’s been natural and not enforced.”
Do you go looking to pick fights on the pitch? “No, I only ever go, if it calls for it, or something happens in the game. I never go out of my way to do it.”
And the England management are fully behind you? “They never want me to lose that. And if I did get told to change I’d say, ‘Well, you know, that’s me.’ D’you know what I mean? That’s how I operate.”
That’s how he operates.
The 38th over of England’s summer is a riot. Stokes drives Matt Henry’s second ball through cover-point, swats his fourth over the ropes at square-leg and murders the fifth through mid-wicket, with a single taking the tally to 15. Having nicked the strike, he takes 10 off the next from Boult to move to 89 from 86. No English batsman has ever made a century at Lord’s at better than a run-a-ball.
It’s not to be. On 92, Stokes shoulders those ink-laced arms to a Mark Craig drifter that comes down the slope to clip the top of his off stump. It’s a weirdly inert moment, entirely incongruous to those which preceded it. An aberration that betrays his youth. A reminder, and a useful one at that, of his rawness, of the sediment beneath the granite surface. These are his first runs for England at Lord’s. We must allow him to leave some straight ones, toe-end some long hops and bowl some dross.
ENGLAND V NEW ZEALAND, FIRST TEST, DAY FIVE
The boy’s arrived, and with him, so has half of London. Happy Mondays. The MCC has played a blinder. The bar staff kick their heels beneath the heaving bleachers. Lord’s is packed.
The previous evening, Ged Stokes had risen in New Zealand at the crack of dawn to catch his boy making some history. “These sorts of things make up for all the hard times professional sportsmen go through,” he told AOC, in the minutes after his son’s innings. “Both knocks say a lot about Ben, because you can see that every run he gets is for the team, it’s not for Ben Stokes. That’s the biggest part of it and it always has been. The team is everything.”
England get on a roll. The sweet novelty of playing in front of a proper Test crowd on a gloomy Monday spurs the new ball bowlers and New Zealand are soon three down.
They consolidate. Kane Williamson, first-innings rock, averaging 90 and plenty in his last 12 months of Test cricket, is in. Stokes is thrown the ball. The crowd demands it.
“He’s going to get better with a bowl,” Andrew Flintoff had told AOC in the week before Lord’s. “Bowling isn’t about technique at that level, it’s about learning how to bowl and confidence, and that will come through time. I’d like to see him work with someone like Darren Gough, just to talk about bowling. I’m not bothered where his arms and legs go, just talk to him about bowling.
“He’s a far better technical player than me. I think he’s a bit more skilful with the ball and can swing it, while his batting is way ahead of where I was at his age. He’s a batting allrounder and, although I always called myself that, I ended up a bowling allrounder. He’s a better bat. And people will like him too. He seems like an honest lad.”
From one to another. Stokes pounds the turf with his feet and his fists. Williamson is unnerved. A sequence of swishes, before a miscued punch off the splice falls to Root in the gully. The great Brendon McCullum is next. Here’s the match.
“With the ball I just like to be aggressive,” Stokes says. “I’m thinking I’m gonna take a wicket with every ball. So, you know, things can get costly sometimes. But I’m always trying to push things forward.”