Drummed up as the bad boy of English cricket and later cast as the new Botham, Ben Stokes, the boy who punched locker-room doors and indulged in bacchanalia, has grown to be the hot new talent who could one day lead England
YOU CAN sense the dread in his voice even now, three years later, as Matt Coles recalls the journey back from Australia in January 2013. Think about it. It’s only after you’ve left the principal’s office, having been sent home long before the final bell that the real enormity of your delinquency and the subsequent repercussions sinks in.
Coles and his ’drinking buddy’ Ben Stokes had been packed off from an England Lions tour to Australia in ’disgrace’ after ignoring previous warnings to cut down on their pub escapades Down Under. (Full Coverage|| Fixtures||Photos)
It was once they boarded the flight, Coles reveals, that they were gripped with fear and embarrassment. “We knew we had f***ed up. Then you are suddenly worrying about finding your parents there at the airport. They’re obviously disappointed in you. How do we face them? Will there be media waiting too?” says Coles.
Like the Kent all-rounder insists, it was a case of two young men ’pushing the boundaries a bit too much and trying to bring some enjoyment’ on a difficult tour where England’s fringe players had lost all their matches. But for all his involvement in the late-night revelries, he was side-lined as more of an accomplice to the real villain-in-the-piece — or the way the English media coined Stokes back then anyway.
Unlike Coles, the New Zealand-born Durham all-rounder had already represented the country and been ear-marked as a prospective candidate in England’s long-running reality talent search show — ’finding the next Ian Botham’.
It wasn’t Stokes’ first brush with indiscipline or his last either. In 2011, he was arrested for obstructing a policeman following an incident related to drinking. And he would also display a certain affinity to punching doors — a fire door as a youngster and a locker-room door in the Caribbean a year after the Australia debacle that laid waste to his 2014 World T20 aspirations.
England’s prodigal son was rapidly turning into its enfant terrible. As clichéd as it might sound, there was only one way to get back on the horse for Stokes, by letting his cricket do the talking. Within two years of leaving a dent in the dressing-room furniture in Antigua, the red-haired tyro has done just that. In a 10-month period, in addition to a couple of remarkable catches, he’s returned match-winning spells — 6/36 to seal the Ashes at The Oval — and two of the most talked-about Test innings in that period — the fastest-ever century at Lord’s and the fastest 250 in Test history at Cape Town.
In a way he’s done what Botham did for a living and even earned immense praise from Botham himself, who insisted that Stokes was more talented than him at 24. Stokes responded characteristically to the rave by claiming that the man the whole of England wants him to emulate must have been ’drunk, hung-over or maybe both’ to make such a comment.
IT IS during an open media session in the build-up to the World T20 that you meet him. And when asked about dealing with the ’bad-boy’ image, Stokes scans you for a couple of seconds, grins and almost with a forced sense of disbelief goes, “Baaad boy?”
The surprise on his face stays put when asked about whether he intends to change his image. “I don’t know how many people say that but if that’s one image I have got then it’s not intentional. I am not going to change anything.”
That Stokes wouldn’t buy into the reputation that he’s garnered over the years isn’t a case of him being bumptious or ignorant. You realize instead that behind this heavily-tattooed larger-than-life personality lies a straight-speaking, frank and professional young man who’s known no other but to play sport with a passion, where winning is everything and failure isn’t an option.
Stokes puts it best when he says, “I always want to win, and do my best and sometimes when I’m not offering what I want to, the annoyance or the anger can come out.” It’s an explanation that even the locker-room door in Antigua couldn’t have any bones to pick with though he does claim to have calmed down a lot on his way back to the pavilion these days.
AS A little kid, young Ben would accompany his father for rugby league practice. Gerard or ’Ged’ Stokes was tough as nails, the tales of the former New Zealand international’s toughness are legendary. In a scene almost cut out from The Revenant, the senior Stokes agreed to have a perennially dislocated finger cut off instead of having it operated on because he couldn’t afford to lose time off the field. Within the next week, he was back on the ground, playing — even though for many years he would have his son believing that the missing finger had been bitten off by a crocodile.
That the junior Stokes would be a combative cricketer who takes no prisoners on the field is no surprise — but you do get an idea of why he would have been utterly petrified of meeting his father upon his return from the England Lions misadventure in 2013. It is during these training sessions while he watched his father and teammates going about their business that Stokes learnt that sport had no meaning if you weren’t playing to win at all costs.
“I used to go out training with him every single night. So I was around a professional sports team from a very young age. I think that’s where the passion and everything comes from. I was around professionals trying to be the best they could be. My dad was the same when he played. So a lot of it just came down through the genes from the old man,” says Stokes.
While in New Zealand, where he spent the first 12 years of his life, cricket wasn’t really his sport, but rather one that Stokes played for fun. It was rugby that brought the Stokes family to England — where the father would coach two out of three major teams including Workington Town in the county of Cumbria in the north-west. But it was in his adopted land that Ben would take to cricket.
GEOFF MINSHAW sounds almost in shock that anyone could associate a ’bad boy’ image with Stokesy. He’s presently the secretary of the Cockermouth Cricket Club but around 10 years ago when a 14-year-old kid played a huge role in winning the club their first-ever local title, Minshaw was the first-team scorer. It is here that Stokes attended school, and also made a name for himself as an all-rounder who could win matches with both bat and ball.
Cockermouth is a medieval market city in Cumbria, located at the mouth of the River Cocker. Little has changed here since the 1200s, and for long it was the only town in the north where pubs were open all days of the week, including when the Monday market was on. The county is based at the north-western edge of England, and has its own unique accent, the Cumbrian dialect that shares some of its vocabulary with the Scottish. They say Aye for Yes and Nae for No for example. It takes you a couple of seconds to grasp.
And Minshaw mentions a number of ’naes’ while expressing his surprise to see how anyone could perceive Stokes’ aggression as being anything but inherent to a passionate approach to sport. “His father’s a tough man you know. In Cockermouth, Ben is a hero. He put us on the map. We are one of thousands of clubs around England and our main aim is to produce a county cricketer. To have an international cricket from here is something we never imagined,” says Minshaw.
Cockermouth is also prone to floods, and the previous December, the historic town was completely submerged. All it took, Minshaw reveals, was a mention about it from Stokes on Sky Sports for the town to receive immediate help and for the club ground to be rescued. “He just mentioned it and the ECB soon provided us with covers and a roller to save the ground. It’s not like we all watch him play together but he’s the only topic being discussed in the pubs when Ben’s playing,” he says.
Stokes’ grey-blue eyes light up when he hears the mention of Cockermouth from an Indian journalist. He tells you about how he yearns to visit his ’hometown’ whenever he gets time to spend with his best mates there.
The chiselled Stokes might not seem like someone who has to deal with many nerves before a game, considering the gung-ho attitude he brings to his cricket but it’s surprisingly been an issue he’s had to deal with all his life. He even has a superstition of sweeping his bat across the ground after each over. “People who say they don’t get nervous are probably saying a little lie there. You are going out and playing in front of millions of people and for your country and you need nerves,” says Stokes.
Minshaw recalls the youngster’s first match for the club, and him literally throwing up at lunch-time, but Stokes’ cricketing exploits still do the rounds in households and pubs around Cockermouth. “I remember one game where we were shot out for 130 and he took five wickets to win it for us. Going into the last game that season we needed to save it to ensure our title. Stokesy played solidly but while everyone watched on nervously he hit the last ball for six,” he says. Minshaw also recalls Stokes as not having been the happiest batsman when dismissed, recalling how he would often hear the make-shift dressing-room door being banged after he got out.
THE HANGOVER of the English public school system is apparent in their approach to one-day cricket — regimented, pedantic with batsmen and bowlers going about their business almost bogged down by the fear of failure and a subsequent whack on their bottoms. Of late, though, English cricket has seemed keen to bring down the wall that’s kept them a gear or two behind the rest of the pack. And Stokes has been the poster-boy of this brash revolution.
He, however, quickly puts it down to the change of personnel in the coaching staff — the arrival of Australian Trevor Bayliss as head coach and Paul Farbrace as his trusted lieutenant. And someone like Stokes who is at his best when left to do it the way he does best has evidently thrived in this atmosphere that propagates freedom of expression amongst its players.
“Sometimes you can come back into a changing room having hit one down long-on or long-off’s throat and don’t want to see the coach because you think he’s going to shout at you. But you’re saying in your mind but that’s how I play. Whereas now I do that and it’s almost like people go like, “That’s the way he plays. Somedays he will come off. Somedays he won’t.” That’s how I look at it. I hope that’s how Trevor looks at it,” explains Stokes.
THOSE AROUND him call Stokes an affable character, who’s devoted to his girlfriend and two kids, and doesn’t quite go at 100 miles an hour off the field but prefers being laidback and watching TV from the comfort of his couch. His attention span is limited to 15 minutes during team meetings and he is someone who should be avoided during touch rugby. He is also always brutally honest and prepared to take on a senior teammate if he’s not pulling his weight.
“Look at how he had a go at Stuart Broad for not backing up during a Test in South Africa. That’s who Stokesy is. Doesn’t hold back. But that’s what makes him a genuine lad. But with someone like him, you have to be ok with him having an off day on and off the field,” says James Tredwell, who’s shared many a dressing-room for England with Stokes.
NOT LONG back as England went through their motions in a tough series against Pakistan in the UAE, coach Bayliss had pointed out at Stokes as being a natural ’leader’ on the field. Over the last few years even as English cricket has tried to break free from its prudish past, the captain has always been of the more sober variety — except when Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen held the reins briefly — and even now it’s Joe Root who’s heralded as the heir to Alastair Cook and Eoin Morgan. But everyone from those who saw him rise through the ranks as a kid — Minshaw — to those who have played with him — Tredwell and Coles — are confident that Stokes could be a future captain of England.
“Captain and me? No? I don’t see it coming my way,” is how Stokes responds to it. But according to Tredwell till the time England doesn’t have four Ben Stokes in the mix and pick a fifth to lead, which in his opinion would lead to a volcanic eruption, the Durham red-head could get the nod.
Coles just can’t hold back his excitement when presented with the prospect of someday playing under his old sparring partner. “All I can say is it would be enjoyable. The meetings would take place in a bar and not last for more than five minutes. But Stokesy would be one captain that everyone would want to play their hearts out for.”