MARTIN SAMUEL: Ben Stokes’ issues with mental health make this appointment a huge gamble – he was the outstanding candidate, but this will put more pressure on a man whose body and mind were creaking
- Ben Stokes was announced as the new England Test captain – a huge gamble
- He is brilliant and was the best candidate, but mental well-being casts a pall
- Protecting it was one of the reasons Stokes stood down internationally in July
- This role will put more pressure on a man whose body and mind were creaking
So Ben Stokes will captain England and we will all be required to politely forget that less than a year ago he was unavailable to his country with mental health issues.
True, nobody is arguing there were many suitable alternatives. England cannot promote players who are too young, or clearly struggling for their best form, and the most gifted county captains would be utterly out of their depth in a Test arena.
Stokes was No 1 choice in a field of one. He is a quite brilliant player, the outstanding candidate and, if this were a general election, would be returned with a landslide and chaired into parliament.
Ben Stokes was the No 1 choice in a field of one to become the new England Test captain
And yet mental well-being casts a pall. Protecting it was one of the reasons given when Stokes stood down from international duty last July. There were injuries, too, and that is another problem that will not go away, but physical torment is part of the lot of the athlete.
Stokes’ finger pain, or his knee aches, come with the territory. If the ECB are giving one of the most high-pressured roles in sport to a man who, quite recently, struggled mentally with less than that workload, it is a different matter. There is a duty of care. There is new thinking. Stokes may feel well now, but there was little indication of anguish before. His announcement came as a shock to almost everybody.
So this remains an enormous gamble. Not just for Stokes, who already carries the weight of being the team’s talismanic match-winner, but for the ECB, too.
Mental well-being casts a pall, and protecting it is one of the reasons Stokes stood down in July
The appointment is an enormous gamble, both for Stokes (above, centre) and also for the ECB
It was not an age ago that Jonathan Trott was brought home from a volatile Ashes tour to deal with the traumatic surfacing of stress-related issues that had been challenging him for years. The ECB were treading carefully around their role in it, of what could be done differently.
The following days were full of debates around the mental pressures on leading sports people, the way the age of celebrity obsession has added to the tension of a high-profile role.
It was pointed out England had travelled to Australia with an 82-page booklet detailing 194 specific recipes and catering requirements. Lunch had to contain grilled aubergine, red pepper, red onion and basil puree or avocado, raw slaw and butterbeans. Players are built up to feel so important they can’t even grab a sandwich like everyone else.
Stokes’ role may now heap more pressure on a man whose body and mind were creaking
Rob Key, England’s new director of cricket, says the skipper ‘epitomises everything we need’
So, of course, when form deserts them, the crash is so much greater. These were the conversations in 2013. And now into this rarefied atmosphere comes captain Stokes because, well, what else was there to do?
The counter-argument is that mental health should not become stigmatised. Should an episode across one brief period of Stokes’ life, when he was dealing with the isolation of cursed Covid bubbles and the recent loss of his father, prevent him from getting the job he clearly both desires and deserves? If Stokes says he is well now, shouldn’t that be enough?
That is clearly what the ECB have told themselves, too. There will have been evaluations, assurances. This has not been rushed. Ultimately, though, there was no alternative. English cricket will now heap even further pressure on a man whose body and mind were already creaking under the strain. We can only hope for the best and wish him well.
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