“I won’t give clichéd answers to anything,” Ben Stokes assures. “I don’t say things just for the sake of it.” This is comforting to hear from an England captain who has spent the past 17 months shredding the orthodoxy of how Test cricket is supposed to be played. Just as he captivates the nation with his wacky field placements, or his Goliath-like power as a batsman, or his refusal even to consider drawing a match, he is happy for an hour-long conversation to take some unexpected directions. Not least when we segue from discussing the Ashes to Brad Pitt.
For it is on Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, Pitt’s character in the Second World War epic Fury, that Stokes models his leadership. Never mind scouring cricket memoirs, the game’s ultimate alpha male looks to a battle-hardened tank commander for his cues on how to inspire. “He told all the other lads in a tank that had broken down: ‘Go, I’ve got this, I’ll fight them all off so you guys can get away,’” Stokes explains. “They said, ‘No, we’re staying with you.’ The person he plays is very ruthless, but in the end, the men he’s in charge of will do anything for him – not because they have to, but because they respect him so much. I don’t want people to do things that I ask them out of fear, I want them to do it out of respect.”
At 32, Stokes can hardly doubt how highly he is esteemed. He is the cricketer of a lifetime, a modern-day Hercules capable of transforming a series through sheer force of will. Even on a creaky left knee, he electrified this Ashes summer through his implacable commitment to playing hard, swatting three sixes in an over at Lord’s and completing an absurd, juggling boundary catch at the Oval. What makes him doubly fascinating, though, is how these bravura flourishes conceal the acute vulnerabilities beneath.
‘I’m just happy being me... I try not to muck about too much’
We meet at an opulent townhouse in Marylebone’s Cavendish Square, in the last of the unseasonable autumn heat. He is dressed for the weather in black T-shirt, cream shorts and white trainers, a look accessorised with the accoutrements of success: gold necklace, gold bracelet, gold watch. It is only two years since he announced an indefinite break from playing to concentrate on his mental wellbeing, his traumas so stark that when one woman asked him for an autograph at his local dry cleaners, he ran away, later recalling how he “couldn’t cope any longer”. Finally, in August 2021, he suffered a panic attack, collapsing on the bathroom floor at his Nottingham hotel.
Perched on a plush leather chair, he displays few lingering traces of this torment. “I’m just happy being me,” Stokes says. “I try not to muck about too much. What you see is what you get these days. Before, I was maybe putting on a bit of a show, a bit of a face for multiple different situations.”
He has spoken openly about his history of anxiety, disclosing last summer in Phoenix from the Ashes, his documentary with Sam Mendes, that he was still taking medication and undergoing therapy. One year on, is he better able to understand what triggers his bleaker thoughts? “It’s more when I’m at home and I have some time off. We all need something that takes us away. I love playing golf. I’m into my video games. People have to have something that they can go and transfix themselves with, so that they’re alright after that.”
It is a complex kaleidoscope of psychological distress that Stokes has had to navigate. One was the shattering loss in December 2020 of his father, Ged, to brain cancer at the age of 65. Stokes blamed cricket for the strict pandemic restrictions that meant he was not alongside him for his final days alive in New Zealand. Another issue was his habit of internalising every misstep and heartbreak, to the point where he felt ready to forsake his sport altogether.
If we rewind further, to 2019, we find that he was also grappling privately with losing his hair. At just 27, he had barely anything left to work with, as swooping overhead camera shots of his bowling run-up revealed a growing bald patch. “I saw the footage of myself, and the angle would be a bird’s-eye view, straight on top,” he reflects. I thought, ‘God, this is getting worse and worse.’” As such, he took the path popularised by everybody from Graham Gooch to the late Shane Warne, booking himself in for a hair transplant.
Stokes on hair transplants: ‘The stigma and the secretiveness have gone’
Around the corner from this stately London building is the Harley Street-based clinic where his procedure, a follicular unit extraction, took place. There is no disputing the results: where Stokes worried previously about how he looked on top, he now has enough hair to sweep back in a lustrous mane. And for the first time, he is finally prepared to discuss why he went through with it all.
“Men and hair, it’s a thing,” he says. “The procedures used to be kept quiet. It was almost one of those things where you didn’t want people to know you had had it done. There’s so much more to it than just losing your hair. If you start thinning, you notice, and you’re constantly trying to do something to make it not look as bad. As people get older, they want to have a good head of hair. So whatever they can do to make them feel better about themselves, why not? I know how I felt, from all the compliments I received. It gives you so much confidence. The stigma and the secretiveness have gone.”
Stokes is not shy in admitting that his self-consciousness about the situation came close to breaking him. “I’m lucky in that I’m quite tall, so I was standing above most people. But it just got to the point where it was getting too much So I went in, got it done, and as soon as I started seeing the results, it gave me so much more confidence, knowing that I didn’t have to worry about it as much as I did beforehand.”
Image matters to Stokes. After all, he once spent 28 hours under the needle for the creation of a full-back tattoo depicting him, his wife Clare, son Layton and daughter Libby in the form of a lion, lioness and two cubs: a metaphorical signal that they could never be separated, even during his long months on the road. These makeovers do not go unnoticed in the England dressing room. So conspicuous is Stokes’ hair regrowth that some of his team-mates are already considering following his lead. “A couple have had it, and a couple more are talking about it,” he smiles. “The chat usually goes along the lines of ‘How painful is it?’ I tell them they’ll be a bit sore, but that it’s definitely worth it.”
‘Even if I failed with the bat, it was a success for the team’s new mentality’
It should be quite the talking point over the arduous months ahead. This week, Stokes heads to India as part of England’s one-day side, seeking to reclaim the World Cup he helped seize in 2019. Come January, he will be back there for the first of five Tests, hell-bent on showing that his swashbuckling style can work even on the subcontinent’s notoriously lifeless pitches.
“Bazball” – derived from Brendon “Baz” McCullum, England’s Kiwi head coach and Stokes’s fellow revolutionary – is the coinage for this hell-for-leather approach. It is a label so ubiquitous that it has entered Hansard, with one Conservative backbencher urging the Government to “apply a bit of Bazball” to its post-Brexit trade deal with Australia. But what does it truly mean? How has it enabled England to go from one win in 17 Tests under Joe Root’s command to 13 in 18 under Stokes? Seldom, if ever, has any sporting team gone so quickly from being harbingers of doom to purveyors of joy.
If you listen to Stokes, who scrupulously avoids using the term, Bazball is less a formal ethos than a state of mind. “Even the senior players have had this wall broken down, by being told to go out and do what they want to do without fear of repercussions,” he says. “When I started off, there was this huge shift in how I wanted the team to play, not just with the bat or the ball but in the field. I needed to demonstrate what I wanted the lads to do.
“At first, I was getting out in some honking ways, but in my mind, I was winning every time that this happened. Even if I’m hitting straight up in the air and after facing 10 balls we’re 50 for four, my team-mates can say: ‘Oh, he actually means this. We can go out and play in this fearless way and we’re not going to be told what a s--- shot we hit, because Stokesy’s out there and he’s just been caught at mid-off when we’re four down.’ People had certain things to say about this at the time. But what they didn’t quite understand is why I wanted to do it. If I was failing, I genuinely felt that I was being successful within the mentality I wanted the team to have.”
Only the very best can pull off this trick of the light, persuading doubters that even a hapless error is a triumph in disguise. Stokes is one of that rare breed, a comic-book colossus who takes the public along for a non-stop thrill ride with his lumberjack arms and his inexhaustible spirit. We saw it when he lashed the decisive boundary in his defining Ashes innings at Headingley four summers ago, celebrating with a primal roar. We glimpsed it again during his 155 at Lord’s in July, a study in gritted-teeth defiance and one that nobody present would forget in a hurry.
Except Stokes, as with many great athletes, is wired differently. He is dismissive of that latest stirring century against Australia, aware that it did not culminate in an England victory. “It’s on the honours board,” he sighs. “But it doesn’t really count for much.”
He needed time to absorb the maelstrom of his first Ashes as captain, experiencing such exhaustion last month that he found himself taking afternoon naps. “I was knackered,” he admits. “It had been pretty draining, both physically and emotionally.” There was much to cherish about the series and how ferociously it was fought, even if England, despite winning two of the last three Tests, could not stop Australia retaining the urn. In part, the circumstances were beyond Stokes’ control, with 48 hours of sopping Manchester downpours preventing his team from winning a Test they had dominated.
“For two nights, I was waking up multiple times, checking if it had stopped raining,” he says. “I was doing all sorts on the final day to try to make the rain go away but it didn’t work. I wouldn’t look out of the window for a whole two hours and then I was praying that if I did look out, it would be sunny again.” He still looks pained by the memory. “But it wasn’t.”
It is striking how much Stokes has mellowed from the firebrand of his youth. True, there are still flashes of temper, the odd signs that he is ill-disposed to suffer fools. As he puts it: “If you do something to try to get one over me, I’ll know.” But the equable soul in front of me is a far cry from the angry young man who twice broke his hand lashing out at inanimate objects in locker rooms, and who introduced a former team-mate at Cockermouth with the words: “I had a fight with him once.” Today, he tries to treat his disappointments with equanimity.
Australia behaviour at Lord’s ‘bizarre’
“I made a very conscious effort, once the Ashes was done, to let it be done,” he says. “I can’t quite say the same about the opposition.” He is alluding here to some eye-catching antics by the Australians since their return home, with opposing captain Pat Cummins deriding members of the Marylebone Cricket Club – some of whom confronted his players in the Long Room over Jonny Bairstow’s controversial stumping – as the “least scary mob I’ve ever seen”. “I don’t understand what’s going on with it,” Stokes says. “They can do what they want, but it’s bizarre.”
His late father remains a guiding force in his life. Ged Stokes, who represented New Zealand in rugby league before moving the family to England in 2003 to coach Workington Town, was a tough-as-teak character, famed for losing a finger while playing after he tried and failed to put the digit back in place. Ben, forged in the same uncompromising image, credits him with ensuring that he did not go off the rails as a teenager.
“Dad was a huge influence on me between the ages of 15 and 19. In that period, especially where I grew up in Cumbria, it was so important to have someone telling me, ‘No.’ He still let me be a teenager, he still let me make mistakes, but when it came to going to the gym in the morning, he made me work. That was huge.”
This paternal wisdom informs the prospects he imagines for his own children. Stokes is blessed with a formidable, intuitive intelligence, reputed to be the fastest England player at completing logic puzzles. But he left school with just one GCSE, in PE, and indicates strongly that he would like Layton and Libby to take their studies further. “I just didn’t get on with school, I didn’t like it. My mum and dad saw that it was completely pointless. But I want my kids to have more of a willingness to continue their education than I did because…well, because they’re my kids.”
By degrees, Stokes has even repaired his once-volatile relationship with journalists. So angry was he at his portrayal over the infamous Bristol street fight in 2017, an ordeal that only ended when he was cleared of affray 11 months later, he condemned the media as “pieces of s---”. The rupture deepened when, immediately after his Headingley heroics in 2019, The Sun put details of a tragedy involving his family on its front page. The newspaper paid substantial damages in 2021, apologising and accepting the story should never have been published.
‘Every day Flintoff spent with us, he grew more confident’
After this tempestuous chapter, Stokes insists that his grievances have subsided. “I thought it would be the hardest bit, the media side, and I wasn’t looking forward to it,” he says. “But you know what, I’ve really enjoyed the press conferences, because they give me the chance to speak. Even when we do poorly, I can reiterate my points about what we do it for and why we play this way.” And if anyone dares misrepresent him? “I saw a great saying the other day: ‘If you’ve got an issue with me, text me. And if you don’t have my number, I don’t care.’”
One whose opinion he does value is Freddie Flintoff. The former England captain, Stokes’s hero growing up when he won the 2005 Ashes in the greatest series of all, has just returned to the national team’s embrace after sustaining horrific facial injuries filming Top Gear last December. “After his cricket career, Freddie’s personality was perfect for TV,” he says of Flintoff, who joined the coaching staff ahead of a one-day match in Cardiff. “But then you see him make a comeback, and you can picture him being involved as a full-time coach. He loved every minute of it. He said that he was in awe of what he was witnessing. Every day he spent with us, he grew more confident within himself.”
It sets Stokes thinking about his personal future. Doubt has long swirled about his longevity, about how much more his battered body can take. Mercifully for everyone seduced by the Bazball gospel, he is adamant he will carry on, disclosing that he hopes to continue as captain until the next home Ashes in 2027. “I’ve never been one to map out how many runs or wickets I want. Now that I’m 32, I’m very realistic that things will come to an end at some point. But I have my eyes set on something I want to be a part of for the next three to four years.”
And beyond? Stokes grins, mindful that this game is, for better or worse, all he has ever known. “I can’t see myself not being involved somehow, even once I’ve stopped playing. It’s in my blood to be there.”