It would never have seemed possible that dark day almost five years ago when it emerged Ben Stokes had been involved in a fight outside a Bristol nightclub.
Then his very future as an England player, let alone any chance he might have had to become captain, was in serious jeopardy and a rare talent looked like throwing everything away in one night of madness while on duty for his country.
This correspondent was among the biggest critics of Stokes then. I questioned whether he could possibly represent England again after behaving in such a reckless and ill-disciplined manner and certainly agreed with his ‘suspension’ from that winter’s Ashes.
Ben Stokes (above) was confirmed as England’s new Test captain at Lord’s by Rob Key
But, I am pleased to report, Stokes looked every inch an England captain, relaxed and upbeat in tracksuit in his home surroundings of the Riverside Ground, on his unveiling on Tuesday.
He paid a heavy price for Bristol even though he was subsequently acquitted on charges of affray but has matured to the point where he is deserving of the highest office in English cricket. The 81st England men’s Test captain is now truly worthy of the role.
Take his measured response on Tuesday when asked about his journey since Bristol, from the lows of injury problems, personal tragedy and a break from the game to protect his mental health to the highs of the World Cup triumph and Headingley miracle of 2019.
Stokes was by far the best choice to replace Joe Root despite concerns about his welfare
His appointment at the captain comes five years after that fight outside a Bristol nightclub
‘Back then I’d never have pictured sitting at a table here speaking as England captain,’ said Stokes of Bristol as he addressed the media in the Colin Milburn Suite, another larger than life cricketer. ‘But I’ve always tried to see every experience, be they good or bad, as something to learn from.
‘You know, people still talk about that T20 World Cup final (when he conceded four last over sixes off successive balls to West Indies Carlos Brathwaite) and there are plenty of experiences that could have chewed and swallowed me up and that would have been me done. But I never let that happen. I guess I’m too stubborn to let anything get on top of me.’
Doubts, of course, over this appointment remain. Not over whether Stokes is worthy of the role now and certainly no doubts that he has both the ability and tactical acumen to do the job. But because of the genuine fear that the Test captaincy could break him.
I called the decision to make him captain madness when Joe Root quit – even going as far as to advocate a left-field choice of Sam Billings instead – simply because of the fear it will all end in tears and probably sooner rather than later.
Stokes paid the price even though he was subsequently acquitted on charges of affray
But to be in Durham on Tuesday was to be given hope that I may have got that wrong too. To listen to Stokes – and new MD Rob Key at Lord’s last week – was to be given hope that England really can rise from the depths this summer and become a Test force again.
Above all else, Ben Stokes, who will make his first appearance of the season for Durham against Worcestershire at New Road, makes English Test cricket relevant again.
To have him as captain is box office, as was shown by the queue of broadcasters in a line on the Durham outfield to talk to him and the film crew following him around making a documentary. Good on Stokes and the ECB, too, for unveiling him in Durham rather than, as is traditionally the case, in a blazer at Lord’s.
There may, at times, be trouble ahead, but it’s going to be an eventful and hopefully happy journey.
*Stokes had a supporting act at Chester le Street. Mark Wood emerged in the Colin Milburn Suite to entertain the waiting press while the new captain undertook his broadcasting responsibilities. And on good form he was, too, despite the elbow injury that forced him out of England’s tour of the West Indies and required surgery in March.
Stokes played a starring role in England’s historic triumph at the 2019 World Cup (above)
Wood, as revealed in Sportsmail, is targeting Durham’s T20 Blast campaign for his comeback and hopes to be available for England in their 50-over matches against Holland in Amsterdam in June and the Test against India at the start of July.
He also had another aim on Tuesday as he sat in Stokes chair. ‘Maybe Ben will make me his vice-captain,’ smiled the ever-upbeat Wood.
*England have a new managing director and captain and the World of Cricket expects the Test coach to follow quickly. An ECB panel of Rob Key, Sir Andrew Strauss and Tom Harrison will interview candidates next Monday and Tuesday and there could be an appointment by the end of next week. We believe the successful candidate will come from a three-man list of Gary Kirsten, Simon Katich or Ottis Gibson. Watch this space.