Lord Botham was in the middle of a round of golf in Northern Ireland when I called so he kept it short and sweet, unsentimental and to the point, when I asked him whether he was pleased Ben Stokes, a giant of a cricketer made in Botham’s image, had been appointed England captain. ‘He was the only choice,’ he said.
What about the main objection to Stokes’ appointment, though? What about the idea that Stokes will have too much on his plate? What about the idea that being an all-rounder, one of the team’s best two players and being skipper is going to overload a man, just as people said it overwhelmed Botham when he was made England captain in 1980 at the age of 24.
‘That’s right,’ Botham said with a swift burst of sarcasm, ‘I had so much on my plate that we lost 1-0 and 2-0 to the mighty West Indies, not 5-0. Look, Ben Stokes will do very well as England captain but the thing you have to remember is that cricket is not all about individuals. It is about the team.’
New England captain Ben Stokes is established as one of the best players in the world
Cricket legend Ian Botham said Stokes was the ‘only choice’ for England captain
And so I left Lord Botham to his five iron and the sounds of the Atlantic crashing on the shore. He is right, of course, about cricket being about the team. The first thing to note amid the debate about Stokes’ appointment is that he is not going to be able to magic into existence a hitherto hidden trove of English red-ball talent.
England are rock bottom of the World Test Championship — ninth out of nine — for a series of reasons some of which are beyond the reach of even a player as inspirational as Stokes, but there are already signs that his appointment as captain, in tandem with the naming of Rob Key as managing director of the England men’s team, is more a cause for optimism than apprehension.
It appears that under Stokes, England will at least start picking their leading players. The practice of planning ahead for a sunny day that never came, which contributed to the recent reverses in Australia and the West Indies, has been abandoned and every indication is that England will now revert to the radical policy of picking their best team for the early summer matches against New Zealand.
England’s best two bowlers James Anderson (right) and Stuart Broad are likely to be reinstated
Stokes will not sweep away the members of the old guard. He and Key are more likely to reinstate them. Which means that the madness of leaving James Anderson and Stuart Broad — England’s best two bowlers — on the sidelines and picking either half-fit or half-decent players to replace them in the name of that promised and elusive El Dorado, otherwise known as ‘the future’, will come to a merciful end.
It is clear most of the reservations about Stokes’s appointment arise from concerns about his welfare, both on and off the pitch, but he was still, by a distance, the best choice to replace his friend, Joe Root, once Root decided to resign. Root stayed dignified to the end, a man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and deserves great credit and gratitude for the job he did.
The England captaincy may still represent a difficult destination but this might just be the right time for Stokes. He is 30 years old and has got a lot of the mistakes that most of us make when we are young out of the way. He is established as one of the best players in the world. He knows how to manage his body and how to manage his mind.
Stokes was by far the best choice to replace Joe Root despite concerns about his welfare
We should avoid damning him with faint praise, too. He has not been picked simply because he — alongside Root — is one of England’s best two players. He has been chosen as captain because, beyond all his savage brilliance with the bat and his explosive spells with the ball, he possesses a sharp, clever cricket mind that reads the game astutely.
He has been a leader-in-waiting for a long time and, when Root resigned, it had reached the point where it would have been perverse to overlook Stokes for the captaincy. Again, the concerns about him being overloaded are legitimate, but it is up to Key and others at the ECB to make sure that Stokes is protected from that fate.
England have very good people around the team already and they will be aware that Root shouldered a heavy burden in terms of his media commitments.
It should be very much to Stokes’ advantage that, in Key, England now have a natural media communicator at the helm. Stokes has to be accessible as captain but if we are already aware there is a danger in him being spread too thinly, then that has to be factored into his schedule.
Stokes is an inspirational person and should be given the chance to lead the team his own way
England — and Key — are also acutely aware that Stokes has to be helped to help himself, particularly in terms of his workload. There is not much anyone would want to do to reduce his time out in the middle but Key and others are keen to stop him bowling himself into the ground when an opponent might be, say, 340-4. There must be others to step up to share that burden and Stokes must allow them to do it.
Stokes will not be able to change English cricket’s red-ball fortunes by himself but there is no reason why, particularly if he rations his commitments to the shorter forms of the game, he cannot be the kind of inspirational, clear-sighted, decisive, respected leader who can start to turn the ship around. Root will be the best lieutenant, as well as the best batsman, a new skipper could wish for.
And so, even if the appointment of a new captain is not a magic bullet, there are reasons for cautious optimism. It is a long climb to the summit but for the first time in a long time, it feels as if England have taken a step in the right direction.
No regrets over Van Dijk vote
I voted for Virgil van Dijk as my FWA Footballer of the Year and Vivianne Miedema as my Women’s Footballer of the Year.
In the men’s award, I don’t have any quibble with the choice of Mo Salah, nor would I have argued should Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne have been chosen.
I voted for Van Dijk because I saw how badly Liverpool were affected when he missed most of last season through injury. His absence destabilised a great side. His return has given them their confidence back.
Virgil van Dijk has re-established himself as the best central defender in the Premier League
I voted for Van Dijk because he has come back this season after a major knee operation and provided the foundation for Liverpool’s assault on the quadruple.
I voted for him because he has started more games than any other outfield player at Liverpool this season.
I voted for him because, after a couple of early glitches, he has re-established himself as the best central defender in the Premier League.
I’m pleased for Salah but I don’t have any regrets about my pick.
Ronaldo is still an issue
The point about Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United is not whether Ronaldo is the problem but whether he is the solution.
The answer is blindingly obvious to all but those who are in thrall to the cult of personality.
The signing of Ronaldo was, and still is, a symbol of a broken club who put the individual ahead of the team, the short term ahead of the long term and the commercial operation ahead of the football operation.
Ronaldo’s scored a lot of goals this season. United are struggling to make the Premier League’s top six. Go figure.
Manchester United put the short term ahead of the long term by signing Cristiano Ronaldo
The best 10 European matches I’ve seen live
It was a privilege to be at the Etihad on Tuesday night to see Manchester City’s thrilling 4-3 victory over Real Madrid. Football is a beautiful sport when it is played like that; a showcase for the sumptuous skills of some of the best players on the planet and for the teamwork of a side like City. I’d have no hesitation putting it in the top 10 European Cup/Champions League matches I’ve seen live (in date order).
Aston Villa 1-2 Juventus Villa Park, March 1983
Juventus 2-3 Man United Turin, April 1999
Man United 2-1 Bayern Munich Barcelona, May 1999
Man United 4-3 Real Madrid Old Trafford, April 2003
Chelsea 4-2 Barcelona Stamford Bridge, March 2005
Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea Anfield, May 2005
AC Milan 3-3 Liverpool Istanbul, May 2005
Barcelona 3-1 Man United Wembley, May 2011
Liverpool 4-0 Barcelona Anfield, May 2019
Man City 4-3 Real Madrid Etihad Stadium, April 2022