Natural leader’s innate feeling for game trumps inexperience
Ben Stokes is unable to call on vast leadership experience as he prepares to become England’s 81st Test captain. The last time he led a side was in May 2008 when the Durham academy played in South Lanarkshire against Scotland Under-19s.
All told, his captaincy experience comprises just two other games – one for Durham Under-17s, and one for their academy. Even at Cockermouth, where he played as a boy, Stokes was not captain. “He didn’t really have a desire to be,” says Jon Gibson, Stokes’s coach at the North West club.
“He thought a lot about his own tactics, which was to play attacking cricket and to make sure that you were challenging the opposition. But I don’t remember anything specifically about, ‘I think we should have three slips, I think we should change the bowling, I think we should do this, or do that’. He just did everything he could to win.”
While his tactical prowess was secondary to his on-field explosiveness, Stokes’s coaches in the Durham academy regarded him as among the shrewdest for his age. “I always said to the other coaches he had qualities as a captain,” says Geoff Cook, Stokes’s coach with the Durham academy and then the first team. “Sometimes those qualities were overshadowed by his general behaviour at that stage, but in terms of the qualities that are needed for captaincy, in terms of tactical awareness, he was always well ahead of everybody.”
Stokes’s team-mates noticed the same. “He was always above his age in terms of maturity cricket-wise,” says Paul Hindmarch, who played in Stokes’s two games as Durham academy captain. “He was always a switched-on cricketer.
“Captains – you want someone who is respected in the dressing room, who wants to really lead from the front. Those are the two most important things and he really does that, so everyone will play for him. He’ll very much lead by example.”
Still, there was no grand plan behind Stokes’s elevation for Durham academy’s two games against Scotland Under-19s. “I wish I could say it was a bit more prophetic, but we try to give all of the players some captaincy experience,” says John Windows, Durham’s academy manager. “Ben was a natural for that type of thing – a natural leader of men.”
Even these two matches in May 2008 provide a little hint about the sort of captain Stokes could be.
“He was very aggressive in terms of his mindset – wanting to take wickets,” says academy team-mate Richard Coughtrie. “He always had an innate understanding of the game. He’s a hard cricketer and he captained hard. His captaincy was very much like his play with the bat and ball and in the field. It was very clear from an early age he was a natural leader.”