From the moment Ben Stokes grabbed the ball at Adelaide, angrily exploring the middle of a flat track, he walked it and talked it like a Test cricketer. Then, a week later at Perth, on a cracked death track, he proved it. Phil Walker, who first interviewed Stokes just before the tour and who advocated for his inclusion at Adelaide, picked up the conversation with the boy who’s become the next big thing.
We’d met him before, first in the sharp light of the PCA Awards night in September, and then properly a few days before Ben Stokes left for the tour that would make his name. That was enough. We were sold.
It still all happened so fast. Before the second Test at Adelaide, he was just another member of England’s entourage. But in the build-up to that match, anyone wandering past the nets on the ground’s perimeter would have met the sight of Stokes and Mushtaq Ahmed going through a batting drill of terrifying power and crispness. An hour later, now with the ball, he would be the sharpest on show. We were sold all over again. He had to play.
Play he did. England took a punt, and Stokes repaid them by barging past a few established reputations – on both sides – to become England’s player of the series. Four Tests, four defeats, but the cricket world at his feet.
It’s a fortnight after the end of the Test series, and we’re knee-deep in a draining round of one-dayers – make that eight defeats on the bounce. How is he getting along? “Ok, I guess, considering,” he says, showing the same scant regard for bullshit that marks his game. “It’s been a tough three months, hasn’t it?”
Has it ever. But England have found one. At Perth, Stokes ran through walls of heat time after time and never wilted: England’s most threatening seamer. On day three, he clean-bowled Michael Clarke. On day four, he carved out the first letters of his name. And on the day England lost the Ashes, he finished the job.
That first Test hundred was so much more than a futile thrash in the dark. It was a gift to England and its bedraggled supporters. He went to his hundred just before lunch, with a rolling hook off his right shoulder. The crowd, to a man, rose. Aussie hacks applauded. One grizzled English writer who’d forgotten more defeats than most of us will ever know admitted to a tear in the eye. England’s first centurion of the series had come from a 22-year-old whom few thought would sniff a match for a fair while yet.
Alastair Cook was bang-on to recognise its importance: “His innings shows the amount of talent there is in English cricket. In the circumstances, with our backs to the wall, and on a wicket like that – when you see the cracks – to be able to put them out of the mind like he did, with the shots he played, I thought was outstanding. For him to be able to deliver that in an Ashes Test match in his second Test match, under that kind of pressure, bodes well.”
A fortnight later Stokes took six wickets on the first day at Sydney. Some were burgled, others purchased fair and square. It showed something else. Like other cricketers of his ‘ilk’ (it’s too early for names), things just happen around him.
As for Stokes himself, which two memories immediately spring to mind from the series? “The ball that Ryan Harris bowled that hit the crack at Perth,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like that, it was ridiculous. I’ve never seen a pitch like that either.”
And another? “Overstepping at Adelaide, thinking I had Haddin, my first wicket.”
Not for Stokes, then, the fluffy memories of success. “I’d rather be learning the hard way than the easy way,” he will tell us.
Is it hard to get your head round what’s just happened over the last couple of months? England take a pasting in perhaps their worst tour ever, while you make your Test debut and finish as England’s player of the series…
I think the biggest thing for me is that after watching how well England have done over the last three years, beating India in India and winning three Ashes in a row, and then getting the opportunity to come out here and play in an Ashes series, and we’ve not done great! It’s certainly different to what I thought it would be. But, you know, I’d rather be learning the hard way than the easy way.
In years to come do you think you’ll be able to look back on the series just gone with satisfaction, based on your personal performances, or do you think it will always be tarnished by the fact that it came as part of one England’s worst ever tours? Do you think you’ll be able to look back on it fondly?
I guess I’ve got to be positive about what’s happened. Personally I’ve done quite well, but I’m still devastated that we’ve lost the Ashes 5-0 and then we’ve lost the one-day series already. But looking back on it, I’ve got to lean on the good times that I’ve had, which aren’t that many, just the odd one here and there, and see it as a pretty good learning curve.
Let’s take you back to your debut at Adelaide. When we spoke before you went out to Australia you told us you felt ready to step in if called upon. Were you surprised to be called upon so early in the piece?
I knew I was in with a chance, with Trotty having to go home, and there were a couple of other guys in there too. I figured there was a one-in-four chance of me playing. But then when I got told I was going to be making my debut it was an incredible feeling.
Can you remember what they said to you?
Cooky just told me the day before the match that I was in, and wished me all the best. I didn’t really have much to say back! As soon as training was done I told my mam and dad, and told Clare, my fiancée, and I told my boy Layton too, though I don’t think he was that fussed…
Stokes on Mitch: ‘He’s run through us this time.
Next time it could well be different’
And the match itself? Was it everything you expected?
It definitely was. They piled on the runs, it was tough cricket, made tougher by the chances that we got – dropping Haddin was a big part in how many runs they got.
And what was it like to face Johnson for the first time?
I’d faced Johnson before in the one-day series last year so I knew he was quick. Once I’d been put in the situation I was looking forward to facing it, it certainly got the adrenaline going. Unfortunately I only lasted one ball…
What did they say to you about your role in the side?
I was told I’d be batting six and be the third seamer.
That’s quite a big ask for an inexperienced lad?
Nah, I don’t think so, because it’s the role I play for Durham. The only difference was the level I’d be playing at. It didn’t feel too big. I just enjoyed being given the responsibility of being the third seamer.
There was a lot of chat around the series about the spirit in which the game was played. Does that kind of ultra-competitive cricket bring the best out in you?
The way we see it is, this is our job and we’re all passionate about it. Once you get into a battle it’s hard to back down and the adrenaline gets going and you get really fired up. You try and get on top of someone, and not just from cricket; you want to be a force out there. It’s the way I’ve always played my cricket.
When we last spoke you mentioned getting into a thing with Phil Jaques during the Yorkshire-Durham match last summer. Does getting into a personal battle work for you?
Yeah I guess so, I always try and give my best in any situation, but when you get a personal battle on top of everything else, you do go up a gear.
Was the England team happy overall with the spirit in which the series was played? Were you satisfied that nothing crossed the line?
We were happy. A lot of people may have said that we weren’t, and there’s been a lot said about that, but we felt we were always competitive. We were always giving our all and trying desperately to win games of cricket. The one incident with Clarke and Jimmy [when Clarke was overheard on the stump mic telling Anderson to prepare “for a broken f***ing arm”] was dealt with by the ICC and they made the final decision on that, and we didn’t have much to say about it. But we always went into every game with the right approach.
With you being the new lad, did the Aussies try and wind you up personally?
I’d say so, yeah! It’s just the way it is. The thinking with the new lad is to try and make him feel uncomfortable. I think I handled it pretty well. I think it helps when you know what’s coming.
Johnson, what made him so difficult to face?
Erm, if I knew, we’d have figured it out a bit earlier and played him better! But when a guy bowls 150kph and puts it in good areas as he has done all series, you’ve got to give credit to the bloke. He’s totally run through us this time. But next time we come up against him it could well be different.
And the two of you rubbing shoulders at Adelaide – what happened there?
It was blown out of proportion again, I wasn’t focused on him, I was focused on the ball, unfortunately we clicked shoulders and that was it. There was nothing else about it. When it’s unintentional no one can complain. The media blew it up, because I guess it gives them something to write and talk about, doesn’t it? It’s an easy thing to write about.
As a youngster in the dressing room, what was it like to lose the experience of Trott and Swann during the series? Did both come as a shock to you?
[pause] I guess it did. First of all, it was very sad to hear about Trotty, and I don’t know how he’s feeling because I’ve never been through it and hopefully I won’t, so to see him go and the emotion he showed when he had to leave us was really sad to see. Some of the guys were really close with him and it was really hard to see it happen but unfortunately things got the better of him. I wish him all the best and hope to see him back in the dressing room again. As for Swanny, he’s the character of the changing room, it was a lot quieter once he’d gone; but, you know, after the fantastic career he’s had he can go out with his head held high.
Was it hard for Cook and other senior men to keep their spirits up?
Not really, it’s tough when performances and results aren’t going your way but everyone in the changing room is good at focusing on the next thing rather than the past. You’re already losing if you’re still focusing on what’s already done.
To Perth then, and one of the best rearguard innings by an England player in a long time. In your heart of hearts did you surprise yourself by how well you played?
[laughs] I dunno really, I haven’t thought about it! I just went out there and played what came down at me.
Broken pitch, a tough situation, brilliant bowling attack and your second Test – it was one hell of an achievement…
Yeah, well, thanks for saying that! But, you know, I was put in there to score runs at No.6, every dog has his day and that day was mine.
Was there a moment at lunch on that final day when you genuinely thought you could save it?
When me and Matty P were together we were thinking about winning it!
And what did the boys say to you afterwards?
A lot of congratulations went around, it was nice to get the plaudits from them, especially from Bell, Cook, Pietersen, those guys who have made big Test runs before. It’s special to get recognised by guys like them. It’s a team sport and the respect of your teammates is everything. I think I would have got it anyway if I hadn’t scored that hundred, but to get their backing meant a lot.
‘Borthwick? He’s a frog in a blender…’
By the end of the series yourself and Scott Borthwick were both in the side. Do you see it that with you now in the team as an allrounder at No.6, it gives England the chance to play an attacking spinner, someone like Borthwick? Can you both complement each other well in a Test line-up?
Scotty! It was a great day for him and for both of us, as Durham lads, to be a part of the same Test team. We’re really close friends so it was a big deal for both of us. He’s proved over the last few years that he can do it for Durham and I really do hope that he gets another opportunity because I’ve seen what he can do for Durham and I know he can deliver for England.
Do you believe he can definitely take Test match wickets?
Oh yeah, for sure! Leg spinners can be expensive but they also change the game, and with his batting at No.8 it makes for a pretty long batting line up.
You’re close mates – what’s he like off the pitch?
Scott? He’s like a frog in a blender, he’s all over the shop. He’s very loud, and he’s got more energy than anyone I’ve ever seen…