Stokes admits he was a ‘shadow’ of himself during his break from the game. Image: Whisper Films
In the middle of a high-profile break from cricket last summer to protect his mental health, England test captain Ben Stokes sat down with director Sam Mendes for a documentary about his life and career. He barely remembers being interviewed.
“I was just a shadow of myself,” he admits, saying he had to watch the tapes back to get a sense of what he actually said.
“I don’t really remember what I was saying, what we were speaking about.”
Stokes looks back and realises he could quite easily have never come back. “In that period of my life, that’s where I was. I could see myself not,” he says.
The documentary, Phoenix from the Ashes, shows Stokes in the middle of his break, talking candidly about having a panic attack down the phone while in a hotel.
It tackles men’s mental health, his final visit to see his father in New Zealand, and the trials of, well, being on trial.
Now back playing and smashing records as England’s men’s test captain, Stokes is establishing a track record for being about more than just cricket. His decision to take a break shone a light on mental health, and may just help make that a more acceptable thing to do. He’s not shy about his opinions, either.
To its critics, cricket is all cucumber sandwiches, batting averages, drunk people in fancy dress and British stiff upper lip.
A man in a basement somewhere will tell viewers something like: “This is the first time since 1926 that the fourth innings has seen two batsmen with the letter W in their surnames combine for more than 17 boundaries.”
That’s not the way Ben Stokes does things. The New Zealand-born all-rounder is responsible for, realistically, the two moments since the 2005 Ashes that have pushed cricket into the public consciousness. Both were in the summer of 2019 that saw him crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
First, he almost single-handedly won England the Cricket World Cup, batting with pure force of will to drag the game into a dramatic “super over”. Commentator Ian Smith’s shout of “by the barest of margins” as England snatched the win is cricket’s version of Martin Tyler’s “Aguerooooo”.
Then, with England looking certain to lose the Ashes to Australia, Stokes played one of the sport’s greatest-ever innings. With no margin for error, he cajoled then pummelled his way to 135 not out, winning the match and keeping a country’s hopes alive.
You get the sense he relishes the raw competition – coming alive when things are on the line and something special is needed. But teammates describe him as glazed over in these moments, focused on getting the job done. Describing the climax of the World Cup, Stokes says: “I knew what was required, I knew what I had to do.”
He likes to relax by competing, too. When he’s not smashing a cricket ball about, he’ll be playing Call of Duty or on the golf course.
“Obviously playing COD, the wife doesn’t get it. She’s like, ‘oh you’re going to play your little video game with your friends’. It’s more than that, it’s more than that babe, alright.
“It’s another form of competitive energy, away from cricket. Just like golf. Yeah, you’re playing golf to relax, it’s still competitive, but it’s not a super competitive environment like you see in cricket.”
The documentary reveals a telling moment when, with the rest of England’s team falling apart as spectators in the dressing room, Stokes walks in with the game tied, has a solitary cigarette in the Lord’s showers, and walks back out to win the world cup.
As someone increasingly unlikely to experience sporting glory myself, it’s only natural to wonder whether these moments are actually any fun. Does Stokes enjoy them?
“I much prefer being the person who can affect it than not,” he says. “In situations in sport and stuff like that, when you’re helpless and can’t do anything to affect it, that is a lot worse than actually being out there.”
It’s only really afterwards that the emotions come. “The World Cup, especially, I still watch highlights of that when it comes on TV, I still get goosebumps, even though I know what’s going to happen,” Stokes says. “Everyone says the same, all the lads who were part of it, fans of the game – no matter how many times they watch it, they still get goosebumps and I still do.”
Since becoming captain, Stokes has been speaking his mind, whether it’s comments on ticket prices, support for the increasingly esoteric county game, or saying exhausted cricketers cannot simply be topped up like cars.
He denies he’s on a crusade. “I haven’t purposely gone out of my way to do that since becoming England captain,” he says. “I don’t feel like I am. I’ve got more of a voice, and I’ve got more leeway to do it. If I want to say something I feel, or is my opinion, I just say it.”
Still, as captain he speaks of wanting to play exciting cricket that inspires the next generation. But cricket has become almost walled-off. Test matches are aired on Sky Sports, and tickets for international games aren’t cheap.
“When you’re players you don’t see that side of what goes on. I don’t know how much tickets cost these days, I’ve absolutely no idea. But when I heard about it I was like wow, expensive that,” he says.
“If you think about it, if one person couldn’t bring their child who’s an aspiring cricketer, who loves the game, because the ticket prices are too high, that in itself is a good enough reason, a big enough reason to maybe have a look at it. Never mind, oh it’s fine we’re going to sell this ground out. Hold on, that’s not the point.
“The whole point is you want everyone to be able to have the best opportunity to bring themselves and their children to a test match. It shouldn’t be dictated to them because the price is too high.”
In 2017, Stokes was arrested outside a Bristol nightclub after a 2am altercation. Footage emerged of him punching someone to the ground. He was stripped of the England vice-captaincy and lost a sponsorship as he awaited trial for affray.
At that trial, Stokes said he was defending a gay couple from homophobic abuse, and was cleared. The couple described him as a “real hero”.
It’s raked over in Phoenix from the Ashes, and is clearly still a source of pain.
Four years after the trial, he looks back on it as evidence that things never really go away, or end.
“What I think is very powerful is that it shows that just because something’s over, doesn’t mean that’s the end of it. Everything that happens in someone’s life is going to have an effect at some point,” he says.
“At some point, my kids are getting older, we’re going to have to sit down and explain the whole Bristol situation to them. They’re going to become an age where their friends will probably speak to them and say something to them, and we don’t want them to be in the dark.”
At one point in the documentary, Stokes describes himself as not much of a talker. And he embodies the sporting stereotype of a man defined by his actions.
But does cricket need a Marcus Rashford-esque figure, crusading against social ills? “I think people should just be allowed to voice their opinion without being shut down.”
Phoenix From the Ashes will be available on Prime from August 26
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