A year into the allrounder's groundbreaking tenure at the helm, a look back behind the scenes at the lead-up into his crowning
When he was told by Joe Root that he would be stepping down as England’s Test captain after five years in the job, Ben Stokes relayed the news to his wife, Clare. Her response was immediate and dismayed. She knew what was coming and was understandably concerned.
Stokes had returned to the side for the Ashes in Australia after a mental-health break during the 2021 summer and was just starting to feel like himself on the Caribbean tour that followed. Now, with Root stepping down, Stokes was the one standout candidate for the Test captaincy.
The fear from those close to him was that it might be a bit soon, though they did not doubt Stokes had the skill sets for the job.
“I hope Stokesy doesn’t mind me saying, but he was not in the greatest place himself when I started playing,” says Ollie Robinson, who first lined up alongside Stokes during that 2021-22 Ashes. “He was a shell of the person I’d seen in the [previous] 12 months.”
The start of the Ireland Test marked a day over a year since Stokes first walked out at Lord’s as England men’s newly appointed Test captain. The journey since then has been as successful as it has been thrilling.
For England to be where they are now - stable, thriving, comfortable in their skin - with thoughts of beating Australia later this summer, speaks of a remarkable turnaround. Those fears about Stokes’ capacity for the job have turned out to be unfounded.
The month leading up to that first Test against New Zealand last year was uncertain. The top of England men’s cricket was being rebuilt after a number of departures. What has become clear since, however, is that Stokes was far more than just a brick in the rebuild. Rather, he was the scaffolding.
Communication was a key part of his toolkit. He took calls, made calls, spoke to players, outlining how he wanted to be as a leader, talked about the cricket he wanted to play. Not all those conversations went well, not all the messages were crystal-clear, but by the time he walked out for his first toss as Test captain, the basic structure for the success that followed was in place.
In his last media interaction as captain, Root reiterated his desire to take the team forward. Privately, though, he was done. He officially stepped down on April 16, the day before Rob Key was appointed managing director. The timing was no coincidence - the two had had conversations when it became clear Key was to assume the role.
Before the announcements, Key texted Root to see where he was at, assuring him that no conversation needed to happen straight away. Root had asked for time off following the defeat in the Caribbean and Key did not want to intrude.
Root called him back a minute later. Over the course of an hour and a half, Root said he would be stepping down and gave his thoughts on a new direction for the team. In conclusion, he said Stokes might be the ideal replacement to effect necessary change.
Just as well, because Key only had eyes for Stokes. He had already spoken to those around Stokes to gauge his readiness and to assess what would have to be in place to get the most out of him in a demanding role.
As it happened, Stokes flipped Key’s first chat around and they spoke about how best to help Root continue through the summer. One aspect was the need to bring the team closer together. During the tough times, when England won just one Test in 17 before the 2022 summer, Root felt isolated from the wider group; the nature of being captain during this period meant some team-mates kept their distance.
Stokes had always been sympathetic to Root’s struggles and was committed to helping him through the rut. At the end of the tour of the West Indies, as the squad were at their lowest ebb, anxious about their futures, and amid talk of a complete overhaul, Stokes took the floor and gave an impassioned speech about how there was no need for a fresh start. The talent in the room was more than enough to bring back success, he said.
Stokes originally regarded even talking of replacing Root as an act of betrayal. That changed when Root informed him he did not want to do the job anymore. Thus, when Key broached the subject again, Stokes was all in. All in enough for Key to drive up north to shake on it and thrash out some ideas, such as bringing in Brendon McCullum as new Test head coach.
Stokes made one final call to Root to ask for his blessing - though it was not Root’s to give. Stokes wanted to show loyalty to someone who had stood by him through thick and thin.
Root could not have been more encouraging. From that point on, Stokes threw himself into the captaincy. ECB sources were surprised by the level of preparation he had clearly done. While Root, and Alastair Cook before him, were inquisitive to the point of being tentative at the start of their tenures, Stokes had a plan for how he wanted to deal with every facet of the role.
He wanted to reduce the number and length of team meetings, particularly those on matters that did not relate to on-field performances. He wanted to cut out middlemen, especially when it came to selection, believing any decision he was responsible for needed to be articulated to the relevant parties by him.
He also had a clear idea of how he wanted to approach the media. Not just in terms of how he presented himself but what that meant for the team. The tone was set on his unveiling.
Stokes held firm on two things to do with his first media engagement at the start of May: the location, and what he would wear. His introductory press conference took place at Chester-le-Street, not Lord’s. He wanted to be true to Durham, and part of him also didn’t see the point in trekking down to London and back for a day.
He refused to have his photo taken in an England blazer, opting to wear the track suit instead. Even that was a compromise, given his first choice was to do it in his civvies. To this day Stokes refuses to pose for staged photos at Lord’s in an England blazer - something of a tradition for Test captains.
Stokes did not want to give off the impression that the captain was above his players. His rationale was that he would do the things he needed to do, but none of it needed to be about him: the team comes first.
Before McCullum arrived in the UK, England players and staff got together at England’s National Football Centre in St George’s Park, near Derby. With the New Zealand series a few weeks away, it was the first time the whole group got together with Stokes as captain.
Over 48 hours, players underwent medical screenings, had headshots taken, and generally spent time with each other, bonding. Some dropped in for a few hours, others stayed for the full two days. James Anderson and Stuart Broad had returned after being axed for the West Indies, and were noticeably chipper. Similarly, an uncapped Matthew Potts, usually reserved, was at ease in this setting. The vibe was very much about opening a new chapter in English cricket. Things felt different. –cricinfo