His genius lit up our summer, but what really drives Ben Stokes?

His genius lit up our summer, but what really drives Ben Stokes?

November 17, 2019

Ben Stokes lit up our summer, but what lights the fire inside England’s talisman? OLIVER HOLT met him at his family home in New Zealand – and gives a riveting insight into one sport’s most complex minds

  • Ben Stokes’ produced one of the best ever innings against Australia in the Ashes 
  • An incredible summer for Stokes and England also saw them lift the World Cup
  • The 28-year-old had suffered controversy after he was charged with affray 
  • He was cleared of the charges in court following his brawl outside a nightclub 
  • After his summer heroics, Stokes’s legend is assured in cricket no matter what 

On the outskirts of the Garden City, where the suburbs prepare to yield to the craggy majesty of New Zealand’s South Island, a low-slung house sits at the end of a neat cul-de-sac. 

There is no doorbell, but Ben Stokes answers the knock. He is barefoot and in shorts. On his black T-shirt, there is a picture of a wolf with its teeth bared. On each side of the wolf’s head, there is a capital ‘W’.

Two ‘W’s. Two wins. Two big wins. Two seismic explosions of greatness under pressure in one golden summer of English cricket. Two once-in-a-lifetime performances within six weeks of one another creating a sense of miracles repeating.

Ben Stokes wrote himself into cricket folklore with his displays in the World Cup and Ashes

What Stokes did last summer was like watching Liverpool come back from 3-0 down to beat AC Milan in Istanbul and Manchester United scoring twice in the last two minutes to beat Bayern Munich in Barcelona. And the same bloke getting all the goals in both of them. Whatever else he does in his career, Stokes’s legend is assured forever.

Stokes won the World Cup final twice for England on the same day, once with that innings against New Zealand that mixed control and savagery and clawed his team to a white-knuckle tie at the end of 50 overs. And then again with his contribution to the Super Over. A few weeks later, he played the greatest innings in Ashes history.

Stokes smiles. ‘When we are old and retired and doing whatever we are doing,’ he says, ‘we will always be able to look back on this and say we were part of the biggest summer English cricket has ever had. 

Stokes with parents Ged (left) and Deborah (right) at the Oval after England beat India last year

‘It’s been amazing but I don’t think anyone will be able to process it and fully understand what we managed to do on the field this year until a later date.

‘The lads are playing again. We have got a Test series against New Zealand starting next week. We have got South Africa coming up. We have got so much to think about and plan for that 2019 will be gone and forgotten for us until we retire. But it will be looked back at as the best summer we ever played in.’

There is no agent here. No publicist. No entourage. No reason to think his prodigious feats and the plaudits that accompanied them have changed him. Stokes remains one of the most relentlessly unassuming of men. He shakes hands and heads for the lounge.

English sport’s man of the year sits down in a reclining chair. A dog-tag hangs down from his neck. His gaze lingers over the highlights of a rugby league match between Fiji and Samoa. He points the remote control at the television and mutes it.

He sat in the same chair, he says, to watch England in the Rugby World Cup final against South Africa at the start of the month. He is a nervous spectator, so when England started badly, the tension got to him. He could only stand it for 10 minutes before he had to get up and go outside. Every so often, he would ask for updates. He came back for the final stages, when the die was cast.

Stokes produced a masterclass to help England beat New Zealand and claim the World Cup

He gives a thumbs up after guiding England to success in a nail-biting Super Over at Lord’s

This is his parents’ home. Stokes grew up in Christchurch where his dad played rugby league for Canterbury, a man legendary for being hard and unyielding on the pitch. Ged Stokes did not show weakness. 

One season, he played for so long with a damaged finger strapped up that in the end, it had to be amputated above the knuckle. The family left for England when Ben was 12 and came home, without him, when he was 21.

Stokes, 28, shares his dad’s indomitability. When he was hit by a bouncer during his epic innings in last summer’s Third Test at Headingley, the stem guards on his helmet flew off but Stokes was determined not to show any vulnerability. 

On the pitch, at least, he hates vulnerability. ‘Oh, big, tough guy,’ David Warner sneered at him as Stokes refused offers of help. To Stokes, it was second nature.

‘I would never back down,’ says Stokes. ‘It’s been bred in me since growing up as a kid here and playing rugby league, where I was a lot smaller than everybody else. I didn’t really care about the size of the person. It was just bred in me that I would not back down to guys who were bigger than me.

The 28-year-old lifts the World Cup aloft alongside close friend Joe Root as England celebrate

‘I enjoyed it when people were going out of their way to put me on my back just because I was smaller. I played number 6 in rugby league so I had the ball quite a lot. I tried to make the plays, so you are in the action. 

‘People were always trying to smash you but I would never show it if I was hurt. That’s where my attitude comes from. That and the genes passed down from my dad.’

If he were a footballer, it seems fair to assume he would not be a diver. ‘If the referee knows they have dived, just send them off,’ he says. 

‘Give them a red card because they are trying to cheat. If a referee does that, everyone will stop doing it. It is the same when the players come up and abuse the referees. If the referees started red-carding them, nobody would do it any more.’

Stokes is good company. People like him. There is no artifice about him. But there is still a feeling it is hard to shake when you are talking to him in a nice lounge in a nice house in a nice street. It is the feeling that this is not his natural habitat. It is the knowledge that Stokes is a doer, not a talker. 

He might stay in the suburbs for a while but sooner or later, he will head for the hills.

Inside the dressing room he is seen in high spirits as he slaps down on the World Cup trophy

Stokes is like Sir Ian Botham or Wayne Rooney or Tiger Woods. Normal life cages people like them. Talking to them does not really get close to them. 

Words are a pale imitation of their essence. They need to escape. They need an avenue for something that burns inside them and they find it out on the field. Normal life is a constraint. They are always trying to burst out of it.

Stokes is a natural. He will not be confined. He cannot be confined. He plays the way he plays and when he is in the zone, nothing can stop him. Trouble finds him sometimes because it is hard for a man like him to turn down the flame. It is the way we have to take him because it is the only way he knows. Tie him down and you emasculate him. You take away what makes him special.

Like their son, his parents dislike fuss and boastfulness. 

There is nothing here that shouts they are the parents of the cricketer who defined our summer. No framed shirts or caps hanging on the wall. No pictures of moments of triumph. There are a few old family photos on the shelves. Tucked away among them, half-forgotten, a trophy Ged won for Coach of the Year when he was Canterbury boss.

Stokes does not get to come back that often so he is relishing being here with Ged and his mum, Deb, who was once a fine cricketer, too. The only bit he found awkward was the family get-together his parents organised soon after he arrived. It was not that he did not enjoy seeing everyone again. But being the centre of attention makes him uncomfortable.

He signs t-shirts and autographs as England celebrate their Cricket World Cup win at the Oval

Stokes produced an innings for the ages as England won the 3rd Ashes test against Australia

‘The thing I’ve found hardest since the summer,’ he says, ‘is being somewhere and getting praised in front of a group of people I don’t know. I don’t get to see my family very much and we had a family reunion here. Someone was saying: “Oh my God, you’ve done so well. It’s amazing to see. Since you were a young boy…” I was like: “Thanks.” It’s really nice to hear but it was a bit embarrassing.’

He better get used to it. 

His World Cup and Ashes exploits mean he is the hot favourite to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award, even though Lewis Hamilton won his sixth F1 world title this season. Stokes says he would vote for Dina Asher-Smith, who became the first British woman to claim a major global sprint title when she won 200m at the World Championships in Doha.

What Stokes did last summer stands alone as a landmark achievement in English sport. And that is before you add its hinterland. That is before you acknowledge that the two epic triumphs he fashioned for his team were also part of one of the greatest redemption stories that sport has ever written. And it has written a few. 

Stokes’ elevation to national hero is a stunning reversal of fortune for a man who had stepped in to defend two gay men from a homophobic attack in Bristol on a night out in September 2017 and became involved in a brawl that left two other men unconscious. 

The fight was captured on CCTV and many made up their minds about Stokes’s guilt before the case came to court.

Stokes courted controversy back in 2017 after he was involved in a brawl outside a nightclub

But the cricket star was found not guilty of affray after a trial at Bristol Crown Court in 2018

Stokes was charged with affray, stripped of the England Test team vice-captaincy that he valued so much, held up as an example of a reckless, arrogant sportsman, forced to miss an Ashes tour of Australia and eventually exonerated after a six-day trial at Bristol Crown Court in August 2018.

Stokes was angry he had to face 11 months of insinuation and accusations over a case he believed should never have come to court because he had acted in self-defence against two men carrying weapons. 

But in the time that has elapsed since his acquittal, he has also accepted a point made by his father that when a man has Stokes’s level of celebrity, ‘nothing good happens at two in the morning’.

‘I’ve definitely done things to change my behaviour,’ says Stokes. ‘There are certain things you can’t do when you get to a certain level in what you do. When it gets to a certain time, you’re a story to somebody. It is something I have taken on board.

‘You can be out having a good time and be absolutely fine. But other people, who are having a better time, can turn into people you don’t want to be around. At a certain time of the night, you are a target to some people and it’s just understanding that and being aware of it and knowing what’s the right thing to do.

Stokes said he has changed his behaviour in his path to greatness and is enjoying family time

‘But I’m not going to change what I do, what I want to do. I’m not going to stop going away having a good time, with my family, my kids, my wife. I’m not going to let the fact that I’m in the spotlight halt it. Those moments are really precious because they don’t come along that often.

‘I had four or five weeks at the end of the summer and I didn’t have to worry about cricket. That’s the first time in a long time I haven’t had to think about it. To go away and enjoy some down time through the family — I’m not going to let that be stopped because people are looking to make a story. I’m just more aware of my surroundings.’

Some wondered if Stokes would have lost his love for the game when he returned after his trial but it felt as if the opposite were true.

He played as if he were on a mission to make up for wasted time, a mission that reached its climax at Lord’s on July 14 when England faced New Zealand to try to win the World Cup for the first time.

It was one of the greatest games the sport has ever seen; a match that made the chest tighten and the palms sweat; a match that England seemed to have lost; a match in which Stokes top-scored with 84 and a Super Over in which he top scored, too. He has been asked many times whether that match or Headingley was his favourite.

He said his famous Ashes innings at Headingley was less draining than the World Cup final

Getting hit for six by Carlos Braithwaite at the T20 final in 2016 helped him in the World Cup

‘The World Cup final was more physically and mentally draining,’ he says. ‘It was down to the wire. Headingley was with nine down. There was no pressure to do that in a certain amount of time. At Lord’s, it was “How many balls have we got left? How many overs have we got left? How many runs are left?”

‘One-day cricket is a lot more draining because it’s a lot faster. You don’t get as much break. You are running a lot harder. I remember walking off at the end of the Super Over and thinking “God, I’m so tired”.

‘A lot of us were haunted by how it would feel if we didn’t win. We were so well prepared for that tournament. Maybe it helped me that I’d bowled the final over in the World T20 final in Kolkata in 2016 when Carlos Brathwaite hit me for those sixes to win the game for the West Indies.

‘It’s down to the individual in how they deal with big moments of failure like that. You either dwell on it and it brings you down but if you can somehow use that as a motivation to keep getting better and want to be in that moment again, that pressure situation, so you can be on the other side of it, it can only do you the world of good. 

‘I am never going to shy away from a pressure situation just because of that day in Kolkata. At the top level, you are going to be in high-pressure situations a lot of the time and you have got to get used to it and thrive on it.

England captain Joe Root congratulates Stokes on his brilliant performance after the 3rd test

‘When Kolkata happened, I felt that was it. Or not that that was it, but that it was disastrous and the worst thing ever and I didn’t know how I was going to get over it. 

‘I didn’t understand how to deal with success and failure as well as I do now. If it hadn’t gone well at Lord’s, I think I would have been able to handle it mentally a lot better than I did back then.’

In his new book, On Fire: My Story of England’s Summer to Remember, which was published last week, Stokes talks about his determination to win back the vice-captaincy and how he texted ECB chief executive Tom Harrison to push his case.

It was not only that Stokes felt skipper Joe Root, with whom he has a close relationship on and off the field, needed his support in the role. 

As he sits in his parents’ lounge, he acknowledges he wanted the vice-captaincy back because he felt there would be a symbolism attached to it.

‘When I was first told I was vice-captain,’ he says, ‘it was such a proud moment for me. When you start your career, you’re not sure where everything is going to go. You don’t know if you’re going to be successful or not because you are making that step up.

‘You play a few games, you become an experienced player, you become a senior player and then you get given the responsibility because you are seen in the eyes of the coach, the captain, the selectors, as being the person to do that job. When it was taken away from me, it was really, really disappointing.

‘I don’t know how other people feel about the vice-captaincy. Some people feel it’s a ceremonial thing. But I take it very seriously. When I got back into the team after the trial and played for a long period of time and felt like everything was going well, I did want to get it back.’

I ask him if he felt like it was a stain on his character when the vice-captaincy was taken away. ‘Yeah,’ he says. He says he talked to Neil Fairbrother, his friend and manager, about how he could get it back as soon as he was recalled to the team. I ask him if getting it back drew a line under everything that had happened in Bristol and its aftermath. Whether it gave him closure. 

He nods again. ‘Yeah,’ he says. Maybe the next step in the redemption story is the captaincy itself? ‘I’ve got absolutely no ambition to be England captain at the moment,’ says Stokes. ‘If the job presents itself to you, it would be very hard to turn down but if I can even take two per cent pressure off Joe’s shoulders, that’s what I’m going to try to do. There is no better person to do it than Joe.’

Stokes’s once-in-a-lifetime performance captured the imagination of the Headingley crowd 

Restored as Root’s lieutenant, he and his England team-mates went into the Headingley Test knowing that defeat would mean Australia had retained the Ashes. 

Staring that defeat in the face, Stokes produced his second once-in-a-lifetime performance of the summer with an unbeaten 135 that included eight sixes and seven fours and a last-wicket stand of 76 with Jack Leach, who scored one.

The innings was one long moment of magical melodrama but one shot, in particular, captured the imagination of the Headingley crowd and the watching millions, a reverse slog-sweep for six over deep point off the bowling of Nathan Lyon.

‘I knew the tactic that Lyon and Australian captain Tim Paine were going with against me,’ says Stokes. 

‘My theory is that Lyon wasn’t trying to get me out. He knew I was going to try and go after him. He wasn’t trying to pitch one on leg stump and hit the top of off. The pitch was a bit dry and it was spinning a bit. Everybody was out on the boundary. He was just going to bowl the ball in the same place and hope I mis-hit one.

‘He started bowling the balls in the same area and they weren’t quite full enough for me to be able to hit down the ground. The reverse sweep was really the only shot I thought I could go big with. He got into a rhythm of bowling in a really good area, which is hard for me to hit.

‘Some people have said one day cricket and T20 cricket have ruined Test cricket but I would never have been able to have the confidence or the skill to do that shot without T20 cricket. 

‘There was a mathematical thought process. I am confident of doing it because I have practised it so much and played it so much. The ball was spinning that way so I just thought it was a shot that was on. 

‘Even if you don’t middle those shots, if you get a little bit of a top edge on it, because you are swinging so hard they can generally go for six anyway.

‘When I did that, I didn’t think it was a huge risk to take at all. Picking your moments and committing to them is a thing. The problem is when you are not quite committed.’

Stokes has no desire to become England captain and said he wants to support friend Joe Root

Stokes’s innings has been acclaimed by many as the greatest cricket has ever seen. 

The awe with which it is regarded has not yet diminished. The applause is still ringing out. Nor is it confined to traditional bastions of the game. Last week, he was included in Time magazine’s 100 Next list, an exalted collection of ‘rising stars shaping the future’.

Before I go, I ask Stokes about a cameo that appears in his book, a mention of his cousin Finn, who watched the World Cup final against New Zealand in a Christchurch bar, wearing an England shirt with ‘Stokes’ emblazoned on the back. I ask him which bar it was. He does not know.

‘He’s a wind-up merchant,’ says Stokes, smiling, as if the other details do not matter. There’s a light in his eyes when he says it. 

After all that has happened, after our golden summer, after achieving glories he may never equal, the fire in Stokes still burns.

On Fire: My Story of England’s Summer to Remember is published by Headline and available now in all good bookshops.

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