Ben Stokes, captain of England. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Donald Trump, president of the USA. Half a dozen years ago it would have been tricky to decide which of these outcomes was the most ridiculous. Now there are many out there who might conclude that Stokes’s elevation to the top job is the one that makes the most sense.
Certainly England cricket coaches, old and new, have no hesitation in endorsing Stokes taking charge of the Test team. Trevor Bayliss and Chris Silverwood, sound judges both, are confident he is the right man to take over. So, too, are the players from Joe Root downwards. Stokes is now regarded as the heartbeat of the side on and off the field, which makes the captaincy seem like a natural progression.
Next week he takes the reins for one match and the likelihood is that he will do the job very well. The decision-makers will observe him very closely since they must always consider the succession. Root is six months older than Stokes but it is highly unlikely he will continue as captain for the rest of his Test career, which could easily last another half-dozen years. The Test againstWest Indies can provide a little glimpse of the future though, whatever happens at the Ageas Bowl, the evidence of one week in charge is not conclusive.
Success as a captain is never guaranteed and the patterns of the past cannot be completely ignored. There is clearly some jeopardy in making your best and most charismatic player the captain. Stokes is different to the predecessors in the England team that inevitably spring to mind – Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen. I can revealhe trains rather more diligently than Botham ever did and his relationships with his fellow players are much warmer, closer and long-lasting than was mostly the case with Pietersen. Unlike Botham and Flintoff, he gives the impression that he does not especially crave the role. But like everyone else he would never dream of declining the offer.
In this era a debut as a captain against West Indies may be regarded as a relatively soft baptism, which was most definitely not the case when Botham took over from Mike Brearley in 1980. Back then the West Indies were by far the best side in the world. Brearley recalls writing to Botham during England’s traumatic tour of the Caribbean in 1980-81 with some advice: “Try captaining England against someone else.”
Brearley supported Botham’s appointment as he explained in an Observer article marking the 30th anniversary of Headingley ‘81. “My view was that he had many of the qualities of a captain. He was shrewd tactically (characteristically erring towards attack). He was generous to players with far less skill than himself. He was courageous in speaking out frankly. I was impressed.”
But it did not work. Botham resigned as captain, just before he was going to be sacked, after 12 Tests in charge (10 against West Indies and two against Australia), none of which were won. Then, after the recall of Brearley, he played like a minor deity, supplying the most devastating evidence with the bat and the ball that he should never have been made captain in the first place. No wonder Botham has always had a love-hate relationship with the summer of 1981.
Brearley acknowledged it was a mistake. “He was too touchy about criticism. He found it hard to captain himself, to find that blend of restraint and liberation that I think he needed … Worst of all the pressure had got to him and England had lost the superb qualities of their best player.”
That is the key issue when appointing the best player as captain. Will his performances be compromised? That is what we will be monitoring whenever Stokes is captain.
Botham needed the freedom to play a bit irresponsibly; it was when he was most dangerous, but this is hard to do when in charge. He was shackled by the captaincy and if Brearley admits the appointment was a mistake, it was a mistake. Everyone thinks that now except, perhaps, Botham, who has to be satisfied with being one of our greatest all-rounders, but not one of our greatest captains.
A generation later, Flintoff and Pietersen gave further credence to the notion that the best players do not necessarily succeed as captains. For Flintoff, the nadir was in Australia when, according to Duncan Fletcher, he turned up drunk to fielding practice in Sydney on the 2006-07 tour. The job can cause havoc in the mind.
Pietersen has been impressively candid about the demands. Recently he recalled his own experience. “You get looked at completely differently,” he said. “Responsibilities change, communication changes; the way in which you carry yourself in the dressing room changes. It’s a difficult place to be. I absolutely hated it. And I was rubbish. It’s a completely different story.”
In the wider cricketing world some of the greats have also seemed uncomfortable as captain: Garry Sobers, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara did not excel in the job.
We should not take it for granted Stokes will be the perfect fit. It is a remarkable achievement that he has been appointed to replace Root after that night in Bristol in September 2017. This comes about not so much from the stunning, match-winning performances at Lord’s and Headingley last summer, but from the fierce commitment and self-discipline he has shown since returning to the team after his enforced absence. Stokes has earned the right to captain England. Whether he is the best man for the job remains to be seen.