May 9, 2022: It was always on the cards that Ben Stokes would succeed Joe Root as England captain and so his appointment as the country’s 81st Test captain came as no surprise whatsoever. For one thing he was the vice-captain for quite a while and on cricketing credentials he is clearly the best man to inspire his teammates to perform above their potential. Leading from the front will come naturally to a dynamic player like Stokes who turns 31 next month. As an all-rounder he follows in the footsteps of his predecessors Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff both of whom led England – though not with much success. Botham in fact didn’t have a win in his 12 Tests as captain during 1980-81 while Flintoff infamously led England to a 0-5 whitewash in Australia in 2006-07.
Great players do not automatically make great captains and it will be interesting to see how Stokes fares in his new role. He certainly will have his hands full for England are not exactly a great team as their standing of No 6 in the ICC Test rankings indicate. As the cricketing cliché goes a captain is only as good as his team and with a number of mediocre players around it will need all of Stokes’ dynamism to get the best out of his teammates. This was one reason why Root’s leadership qualities and his captaincy record were viewed with some sympathy. Perhaps he was too nice a guy but the fact remains that England’s batting in particular has been wobbly for some time now and there is no point in putting the blame on the captain for repeated batting failures.
Stokes however gives the impression that he will be a no nonsense, hard headed leader who will demand and get the best out of his teammates. It will take some doing but if there is one person who can do this it has to be Stokes. He has seen it all and this is not just about his Test record which is outstanding. Off the field he knows what it is to be beset by mental health problems, to be charged with affray and then be acquitted in a high-profile court case and he is aware of the pressures and the adulation that are routine for a world class cricketer who is expected to deliver every time.
Stokes has got a bit off a head start for he enjoys a cordial relationship with Rob Key, ECB’s new MD of cricket operations. He has also been saying the right things talking about expecting a team of “selfless” cricketers to take the field alongside him. A salty pro, his priority will be to gather people around him who he can trust and who are on the same wavelength. He has also indicated that he would welcome back James Anderson and Stuart Broad to the side. The experienced duo had been axed from the tour to the West Indies in a decision that caused eyebrows to be raised.
Stokes has also said he does not expect the captaincy to affect his form as it affected Botham but not Flintoff. Both were instinctive cricketers not particularly well served by the demands of captaincy. England cricket fans will no doubt hope that Stokes will fare better as a leader even while there appears to be little danger of his performances with bat and ball being affected. He is unlikely to spend too much time analyzing the lessons of history. As he has said “I have had to deal with comparisons to Botham and Flintoff since I was 18 or 19. And I have always maintained that I am not trying to be either of them – just Ben Stokes.”
(Partab Ramchand is a veteran sports journalist, the views expressed here are personal.)