He’s the tough guy of English cricket and arguably the best all-rounder since Sir Ian Botham. Ben Stokes on breaking records, locker-room tantrums – and the last time he cried. By Nigel Farndale
As a conversationalist, Ben Stokes likes to play himself in. He takes his guard, levels a pink-lidded gaze at his interlocutor and answers questions defensively, in an earnest, slightly lisping, flat-vowelled monotone that owes more to his teenage years in Cumbria than his early childhood in New Zealand. It is the opposite of his batting style, which is explosive from the start. His bowling style, too, come to that.
As we sit in a dank corner of a disused shipyard in Sunderland – he is making some social-media films here for Red Bull, one of his sponsors – he hesitates only once. It is when I ask him about the last time he cried. I’m hoping he will say it was over a rom-com, which would be amusing given his reputation as the hard man of cricket, but after a long pause he says, “When a close friend from school died a couple of years ago.” He doesn’t want to elaborate. Ah, OK. Moving on.
At 6ft he’s tall, but not fast-bowler tall; not Finn, Broad, Tremlett tall. His features are angular, his skin freckled and his eyebrows so pale they are almost invisible. An array of tattoos covers his gym-hardened arms. When I ask him to talk me through them he obliges, ending with, “… and this one is a symbol of my tribe in New Zealand. My mum has more Maori in the family than my dad’s side.”
It is a war-like tribe, presumably, for the Stokes fuse is famously short. When opposition teams sledge him – that is, try to make him lose concentration at the crease by winding him up – the only worry his England team-mates have is for the wellbeing of the sledger. When the Australian wicketkeeper Brad Haddin once tried this, the England spinner Graeme Swann took him to one side and suggested it might not be a sensible way to proceed, on balance. When Haddin asked why, Swann explained, “Because he’ll f***ing kill you, mate.”
When I ask Stokes how close his altercations on the pitch have come to turning physical he gives a short, ambiguous laugh and answers in a way that sounds as if he means the opposite: “There’s adrenaline there, but I’d never get close to punching someone. It’s the heat of the moment. Trying to be the bloke to get the wicket that will change the game back in our favour.”
Arguably it is this anger – always just below his surface – that has made the 26-year-old cricketer England’s top all-rounder, some might say the greatest, alongside Sir Ian Botham (having overtaken Freddie Flintoff, statistically at least). In the final Test of the West Indies series earlier this month, he got a career-best wicket haul of 6-22, and thus became only the eighth player to have his name on both honours boards at Lord’s (which means he has not only taken five wickets with the ball there, but also scored a century with the bat).
This is in addition to the world records he already holds, notably the fastest 250, which came in a match against South Africa last year and included 11 sixes. When in 2015 he got what everyone assumed was the fastest century in history at Lord’s (until a spoilsport statistician discovered a slightly faster one from 1902), his fiancée, Clare Ratcliffe, who describes herself as a cricket widow, sobbed with joy in the stands.
“I’ll have a few pints the night before a match. I’m 26, not 14″
He tells me they are planning to get married on October 14, shortly before he heads off to Australia for the Ashes series. The shipyard we are sitting in is not far from Chester-le-Street, the home ground of Durham, his county side. The couple recently bought a “footballer’s mansion” near here – it belonged to Adam Johnson, the disgraced footballer now in prison for sex offences, hence the knockdown price of £1.7 million.
This sum, by happy coincidence, is what Stokes was paid by the Indian Premier League for a mere month’s work earlier this year – a record for an international player. Along with his sponsorship deals with Red Bull and New Balance and his £700,000 a year “central contract” with England, it has made Stokes a wealthy man. Is he, I ask, investing his new-found riches shrewdly? “I’ve a brilliant manager in Neil Fairbrother,” he says. “I trust him to point me in the right direction.”
Mr and Mrs Stokes, as they will soon be, have two small children, Layton and Libby. When I ask how he will cope with being separated from them when he is away in Australia until the new year, he shrugs. “I’ve been used to being away from my family for long periods of time, even as a teenager. Summers in Durham playing for the academy, away from the comforts of home. My kids are used to it, too. It has always been the case that, ‘Daddy is home for a week or two and then you are not going to see him again for four or five weeks.’ ” He leans forward in his chair. “It makes seeing them more special and Clare is very understanding of the situation.”
She is less understanding when it comes to his personal habits. Stokes has said that she gets “driven mad” when he is at home, at least for the first week after a tour when he treats the place as if he is still in a hotel, leaving towels on the floor and dishes on the side. Stokes was barely out of his teens when he became a father. Was he hands-on? “I was a nappy changer. Becoming a father was a big difference from how life was before. But the good thing is, it will mean I’m still fit and active when my son gets to the age where he wants to play sport properly with his dad.”
“My kids know they won’t see me for four or five weeks. They are used to it”
Does he make any allowances for his son’s tender age now? “No. If Layton loses his concentration I say, ‘Well, I’m not going to play with you then, if you’re being like that.’ Even though he’s four. I think it comes from being sporty. My dad was the same with me when I was growing up.”
Ben Stokes was born and partly raised in Christchurch, New Zealand, where his father, Ged, was a professional rugby-league player and his mother, Deb, a counsellor. “My mum would go away to Australia all the time for work, so Monday to Friday was spent with dad,” Stokes recalls. “So that meant growing up around rugby training every day. That sense of dedication probably rubbed off.”
It meant Stokes became so obsessive about sport that he couldn’t concentrate on lessons at school. When the family moved to England – after a neck injury forced his father to give up playing and become a coach – Stokes was 12 and his school work suffered even more. “Nothing at school stood out to me as a career path apart from sport,” he says now. “It was all about rugby and cricket for me.
“When I first came here, I had a New Zealand accent and everyone wanted to hear me speak. That was how I got to know people. They would ask me to read signs out loud.”
It was when he was 13 and he broke his hand punching a fire door after getting out in a cricket match that his temper tantrums first exhibited themselves. That red mist episode was repeated more dramatically in the West Indies in 2014, when he fractured his wrist after punching a changing-room locker. After that his England team-mates started calling him Rocky and The Hurt Locker, and he worried that they would think he had a “tapped head”. Do they still tease him about the locker incident? “It comes up every now and again, yeah.”
I ask if they give him space if he hasn’t batted or bowled well, as was the case last year when he was knocked for four consecutive sixes in the last over of the final of the ICC World Twenty20 championship, costing England the title. “If someone gets out or bowls badly, you try not to get in their space. Leave them to it,” he says. “I methodically pack my kit bag now when I get too pissed off, because it takes me five or ten minutes and by then I’m usually done with the frustration and anger.”
Which brings us to the “stump mic” incident at Headingly in the second West Indies Test this summer. Stokes was given another demerit point to add to his collection after he was heard swearing on the pitch. That means he is now one shy of a suspension. “Look, from what I’ve heard [the authorities] are going to sit down and discuss the rulings on that,” he says. “If a batsman gets hit close to the stump mic and swears in pain, is that going to be a penalty? A heap of frustration had built up all that day and then the batsman got a nick and it went for four, and swearing was a release for me.”
“Does he see a shrink about his anger issues? ‘Yeah, I have to make sure I keep a lid on it’
The locker incident and the demerit points have given Stokes a reputation not only for having what psychologists might call “an unfortunate manner”, but also for being easy to goad, something that the West Indies all-rounder Marlon Samuels exploited mercilessly when he gave Stokes a mocking salute after he was bowled out cheaply in 2015. He must be aware that the Australians will be out to target him in the Ashes. “Yeah, I am,” he says in a laughter-edged voice. “Well, if that’s the tactic they want to use then they will be focusing on something that has nothing to do with cricket, so we can take advantage of that. Use it against them. I’ll know that if I’m getting a few words here and there it’s because they are not concentrating on the game.”
I ask him whether he sees a shrink about his anger issues. “We have a team psychologist available on match days,” he says carefully, “but I haven’t spoken to him about it lately. We have normal conversations. He doesn’t force it on you.” He stares at his feet. “But yeah, I have to make sure I keep a lid on it.”
Does he worry, though, that if he keeps too tight a lid on his temper it will take away his edge? “Yeah, I maybe just need to channel it in a different way. Even after I got my demerit point I was still being aggressive towards the batsman, just not in a vocal way. I was asking the umpire all the time, ‘Am I OK here?’ They don’t mind confrontation if it’s not personal or over the top.”
Stokes is the first to admit he’s not a good listener in team talks, and he’s not a great one for analysing his own game either. But he does have the odd superstition. He likes to have an omelette for breakfast on the morning of an important innings, because that was what he had before his glorious 258 against South Africa. “My only real superstition, though,” he says, “is that I always have to put my left pad on first. I wouldn’t feel right if I put my right pad on first. It would feel weird.”
When I ask him to articulate what it felt like when he got his 258, whether he felt invincible that day or found it hard to keep his ego in check afterwards, he says, “I’m not very good at speaking about myself when it comes to doing well. I lose my words … When I got my 258, I didn’t want to sound arrogant, I just wanted to … shove it under … you know.”
This halting answer reminds you that, for all his aggression as a player, Stokes can be a surprisingly modest man; a decent one, too – unlike some players he “walks” when he knows he has nicked a ball that had been caught behind, even before the umpire has made up his mind, or in one case given him “not out”. Away from cricket, he is happiest, he says, playing on his Xbox or having a round of golf “with Stu [Broad] and Rooty [Joe Root]” (he plays off a 12 handicap).
As the former England captain Michael Vaughan puts it, in Stokes, “England have got a freak cricketer; they are very fortunate to have him because he will win games in every format for years to come.”
It’s the reason Stokes’s sponsor, Red Bull, is all over him, too. “It’s the full-on for me,” he says. “I drink it during matches for hydration. I always drank it, even as a kid. And it does mix well with Jägermeister.” Indeed, he’s a legend in that respect, once claiming he lost count after 20 Jägerbombs. When was the last time he had a Jägerbomb night? He purses his lips as he thinks. “Probably after Edgbaston.”
He acquired a bad-boy reputation after he was sent home from a tour in Australia in 2013, after ignoring a curfew and going out drinking. Presumably he no longer drinks alcohol during a five-day Test? “Yeah, why not? We’re grown men, go out for dinner, have a few pints. I’m 26, not 14. I don’t have to drink Diet Cokes with dinner.”
I ask if there is a public school/state school divide in the England team. I’m thinking of an unguarded comment made by Giles Clarke, the former chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, about Alastair Cook coming from “the right sort of family”. “One person we absolutely nail is Sam Billings, because he is so posh,” Stokes says. “He cops it from the lads about being ‘rah’, as we say. But judging someone based on what school they went to is not high on my agenda. I went to a normal school; other guys went to big private schools like …” he frowns again. “Actually, I don’t even know the names of these schools, but if it does get brought up, it gets used in banter.”
After his first game for Cumbria as a teenager, Stokes doubted himself so much he was sick. He has clearly learnt to channel his doubts and nerves since – he tells me he always sleeps soundly before a match – and he is also learning to manage his anger better and understand why, as often as not, it is directed at himself. From the perspective of a spectator, however, I hope he doesn’t learn to manage his emotions too well. The last thing we want is a passionless Ben Stokes on Prozac.
It is time to do the photoshoot and, as he changes into his England kit, I see yet another tattoo on his back, this one of England’s three lions.
I decide I’m not going to let the crying question go. Has he ever blubbed during a film? He grins. “Yeah, once, watching The Lion King. When Mufasa dies. I was six.”