Ben Stokes: drunken liability or an England captain?

Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/image/8997378-3x2-700x467.jpgSource: http://www.abc.net.au/news/image/8997378-3x2-700x467.jpg

On 17th January, the news that the ECB had cleared Ben Stokes to play for England was met with cheers and – dare I say it – the odd celebratory pint by England fans everywhere. More than that, cricket fans the world over will be delighted at the prospect of the return of one of the game’s hardest hitting, fiercest competitors. Beneath this euphoria, I suspect I am not the only one who met the announcement with a slight sense of perplexity. He has not played for his country for almost four months after his notorious altercation at a nightclub in Bristol, and now, at the moment when he has actually been charged with a crime (affray), he is free to represent his country once again. The inner workings of the ECB’s disciplinary and selection policy are secondary to the main thrust of this article, though could take up many dozens; Stokes’ behaviour in late September of last year is but the most significant of a series of issues that has plagued this England team over this Ashes year. An alleged drinking culture has been debated, as has the senior staff’s “management” of the team.

Feted for their adult approach to their jobs, Trevor Bayliss and the rest of his coaching staff have consistently refused to implement curfews or alcohol restrictions. There is a grim irony in Stokes’ celebration of this regime in an interview in The Times magazine that was published the week of his drunken, violent antics. Lines such as ‘There is adrenaline. But I’d never get close to punching someone’ are just too good to be true, even if they must be infuriating for his coaches, and possibly his teammates. Undeniably a popular member of the team (and the current captain, Joe Root’s best friend), Stokes was sorely missed in Australia; his all-round qualities would have meant a bowler to replace the likes of Jake Ball, Craig Overton and Tom Curran, not to mention his qualities as a world class batsmen in his own right. To take nothing away from these three players, there is really no contest. His boasting of his jaeger bomb drinking ability (twenty easily apparently) does not overturn the impression that his prodigious talent has not required Stokes to develop the discipline of players like Alastair Cook or Moeen Ali, instead warranting him the freedom to behave like a lad on tour while maintaining exceptional standards on the pitch. In the aforementioned interview he does raise a valid point about expectations placed on professional athletes: so often expected to be act like ultra-disciplined robots, he asks why shouldn’t he and his team-mates have wine with their meal in the middle of a game. I suppose this was the thinking behind Bayliss’ progressive attitude towards curfews.

Stokes’ arrogance has previously come across in the way it does for many top athletes: it is made up for by their performances on the pitch, and is perhaps a central cause of these performances. Just in the same way as Bayliss’ approach to handling maverick players like Stokes was lauded until it was the team’s downfall, so too has Stokes’ fast-and-loose attitude towards life and the game itself ultimately undermined him and his team. As is all too common in the contemporary media, news outlets were quick to turn on England’s management, suddenly attacking policies like no curfews that had arguably been the root of the team’s earlier success. There can be no denying, however, that whatever the provocation, Stokes showed a nasty streak in the CCTV footage of his fight: marching forward, he punched until they stayed down.

Stokes’ punching antics allow for a narrative leap to his fellow red-headed all-rounder-turned boxer, Andrew Flintoff; a man who has reinvented himself in many guises – most recently as the star of a musical. Before this he turned his hand to boxing, and is a fairly major presence on British television through A League of Their Own, and other ventures. His playing days are famed for alcohol-fuelled incidents. A pedalo trip in the Caribbean and a drunken bus tour in 2005 mark him in the same category as Stokes: a talented man who might have allowed drink to sour a top career. Freely admitted by Flintoff, Stokes is the more talented player, and would hate to see the younger man throw it away: in startling moments of honesty, Flintoff has discussed his alcoholism and bulimia. Only years after his retirement has he managed to get a handle on these issues.

Alex Hales’ involvement in the Bristol nightclub incident, combined with two further altercations in Australia on the team’s Stokes-less Ashes tour, has led to questions around the team ethic. The Australian team took advantage of England’s disarray, bringing up an apparently innocuous incident involving Jonny Bairstow greeting Cam Bancroft with a head-butt. This slightly absurd story was explained by both sides, and Steve Smith’s laughing face became a symbol of England’s farcical attempt to retain the Ashes. Ben Duckett’s pouring a drink over his team mate Jimmy Anderson’s head was the icing on the cake as far as the tour went. These latter two misjudgements demonstrated the bind that England’s management team had got themselves into: tangled by Stokes’ actions, they were forced to escalate these issues, taking them seriously enough to fuel the media perception that the team was plagued by drinking problems.

As England look to move beyond Stokes-gate, they will have to deal with intense media scrutiny, and some no doubt penetrative sledging from the opposition; already a target for and distributor of on-field chat, Stokes in particular will need to be wary, especially given the newly-invoked card system that can lead to bans. As the side’s vice-captain prior to his removal, Stokes will re-enter the team with his usual swagger and must make an immediate impact both on and off the field to assuage any lingering doubts over his involvement. The beating heart of the team over recent series, Stokes has to energise a test side facing a crisis after a disastrous tour of Australia and squeeze his way into a one-day team out-performing the world’s best. Indeed, by integrating Stokes back into the team, England will hopefully be able to draw a line under this tour and move into a much friendlier looking home season, with series against Pakistan and India.

More than simply selecting Stokes, I would advocate an even bolder call from the ECB: to back up their brave (if slightly illogical) decision to clear him to play, they should make him the test captain. While perhaps the sporting cliché of forcing players to step up through the provision of more responsibility is over-egged, I think it would be a success in this case. A man who bleeds England (and literally has it tattooed all over his arms) would be perfect to lead the country into the next phase of test cricket. Tough on Joe Root, yes, but not entirely unwanted by him perhaps – he has not shown the upturn in form of great test captains of the past and present (take Steve Smith for example), and his batting is England’s greatest strength and surely must recover for the team to scale the heights of world rankings. Failure to convert starts into big hundreds has kept him in the second tier of top batsmen, with Kohli and Smith’s extraordinary conversion rates marking them out as the best of their generation: I would put this down to a lack of concentration, or more exactly, having too much on his plate with the captaincy weighing him down. Neither a natural leader nor an unflappable character in Cook’s mould, Root would be better suited to rejoining the ranks, and aiding Stokes as his vice-captain. Eddie Jones’ selection of Dylan Hartley as England rugby captain has been lauded, despite his litany of past disciplinary issues, and is only now coming under scrutiny as Hartley’s position in the team itself has come into question: Stokes will never have this issue as he is surely the first name on the team sheet. Surely a strong individual like him will thrive on making the team in his own image, marshalling on and off the field to ensure the line is drawn in the right place. While his judgment has been – and will continue to be – called into question, the ramifications of this particular incident will have opened Stokes’ eyes to his own fallibility, a crucial trait of a good captain. Indeed, it will be fascinating to follow the upcoming trial to hear a full account of his version of events: what he has hinted at suggests a narrative of defending others – if this proves true then it is even more evidence that he’s the man for the job. If not, he will have a harder time winning over the public and his teammates, but that will be a rewarding struggle and one that Stokes can overcome with his usual passion and flair. Sobered by his Bristol experience, Ben Stokes is the right man to lead the England cricket team.