Even if just once, Stokes awaits chance to say “yeah, I’ve captained England”


Stokes is likely to stand in for Root in at least one Test against West Indies

Stokes is likely to stand in for Root in at least one Test against West Indies © Getty

There have been eleven England Test captains who have held the honour for only one match. The first was Sir Aubrey Smith who captained a Test against South Africa in Port Elizabeth in 1889. Remarkably, that was Smith’s only Test appearance. The last player to lead England in a Test just once? Mark Butcher, who stood in for Nasser Hussain during the 1999 home series against New Zealand.

It is a random, if exclusive, club and one that Ben Stokes might join if, as looks increasingly likely, he stands in for Joe Root during the Test series against West Indies which begins next week at the Ageas Bowl. Root’s wife is due to give birth to their second child and given the strict isolation requirements currently in place following any hospital visit to prevent the spread of Covid-19, it seems Root will miss either the first or second Test.

If he does, Stokes will become England’s 81st official Test captain. Like Butcher, he will be a stand in but how he handles the role will give a glimpse into the type of leader Stokes might be should he be considered for the job in the future. “Obviously getting the opportunity to captain England is a huge honour – even if it’s only the once you can still say ‘yeah, I’ve captained England’,” he said.

“So it’s a huge honour to think about, and something I’m really looking forward to if the opportunity presents itself, but also at the same time I know I’m only stepping in to take over the reins for the one game because of Joe’s personal situation.”

Stokes admits that captaincy has never been an ambition. He has only ever done it three times, once for Durham under-17s and twice for Durham’s academy. His record stands at won one, lost one, drawn one. “I don’t remember much because I was about 16,” he said. “I’ve never set a goal out to want to be a captain. If you look at people like Alastair Cook, he was always destined to be England captain after Andrew Strauss. Joe Root was always destined to be captain after Alastair Cook.

“If I’m being honest, I’m not one of those people that people would necessarily associate [as] the next England captain. It’s never been a goal, but I’m really looking forward to the opportunity of doing it. I’ve never really set massive goals to be honest it’s just always about winning.”

What sort of captain will Stokes be? “Nine slips and a gully, probably,” he joked. “I’d like to think that I’ll be quite an open captain and wouldn’t want to just think that my way is the only way, because I don’t necessarily think that is the best way to operate. There are 11 guys out on the field, so why not get 10 other opinions on something that you’re thinking about?

“I hope that I always try to set the example in terms of attitude and commitment towards what I do. Having the added responsibility of being a captain also comes with pressure, in terms of making decisions, especially through tough periods of the game, which Test cricket can throw at you. If another team are putting a big partnership on, you’re the person who makes the decisions to try to break that partnership.

“You’ve got all that to think about. Even if I am in charge that’s not going to change the way that I go about things, in terms of how I want to influence the game, which is try to make a positive effect with the ball or bat in my hand. No matter what I do in terms of choosing what to do in a situation, it will always be the positive route.”

Perhaps the trickiest situation Stokes will face is how to handle his own bowling. There is a balance to be struck between using himself enough but not overdoing it. Andrew Flintoff famously got the balance wrong in his fourth match as captain, bowling 51 overs at Lord’s in Sri Lanka’s second innings during the summer of 2006. He then missed much of the second half of that season with an ankle injury.

Stokes himself recognises that there might be occasions when he is bowling well and will have to consider when to take himself off even if his natural inclination is to want to carry on. After all, he has become accustomed to bowling marathon spells to haul England into better positions. See Cape Town this winter, Headingley last summer and Colombo in the winter of 2018.

“Depends if it is a flat wicket or not. If it is flat I will throw the ball to Jofra, Jimmy and Broady and say here you go!” Stokes said. “It is a tough one. When Joe asks me to come and bowl, if I’m not bowling well I know I’m going to be taken off. But if I am bowling well and feeling in great rhythm, he doesn’t just say keep going he just looks and goes ‘one more’?

“He will say that for another four or five overs. I guess I will have to be a bit more mindful if I am the one making that decision. It is a tough one to know if you are feeling good as a bowler when to put yourself on or keep yourself on. I don’t know, you will have to wait and see.”

England begin their three-day warm-up game at the Ageas Bowl on Wednesday (July 1) which will be a chance for Root and Stokes to cast an eye over the candidates for the first Test squad, which will be announced on Saturday. If Stokes is captain for that opening game, he wants to have input into the side he leads. “I would quite like to have a decent say in terms of the final eleven that will be walking out onto the field,” said Stokes.

“I feel like we’re in a situation [England were in] with the one day team before the World Cup where you could pick 16 guys but you can only pick 11. Which is a great place to be in. I think a lot of what guys do in training and what guys do in this three day warm-up will have an influence in terms of that first 11 that walk out onto the field here in that Test match.

“But I have got to say that everybody so far in training, it’s just so hard to see who is ahead of who because obviously everyone’s been working really, really hard in their individual training and at their counties, which has shown at the standard of training here. So, yeah, first game in charge, everyone’s fit, can only pick 11. I might not have as many friends after this Test match.”

As Stokes is already coming to understand, the Test captaincy will bring new and interesting challenges. Whether he has to face those challenges more than once, unlike Smith and Butcher, remains to be seen.

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