Ben Stokes is clearly an inspirational leader. Whether it single-handedly leading England to victory at Headingley – surely his finest moment – or captaining a scratch English side to a 3-0 victory against a full-strength Pakistan, he is clearly a cricketer that teammates will follow. That he is extravagantly gifted, to the extent that he would likely keep his place in the side purely as a bowler or batter, no doubt helps, but as Joe Root’s captaincy proved, talent alone does not guarantee success in the role.
The unanimous response to his elevation to the captaincy was that he was not only the obvious choice, but the only choice. That is in part a reflection of his obviously excellent leadership skills. But it is also another reflection of the weakness of the English Test team. Stokes almost had to be given the job, because he and Root are the only players guaranteed a place in the side. That is a troubling reality ahead of what looks like a very difficult summer.
New Zealand were not at their best during their home summer, failing to win their two-match series against Bangladesh and South Africa. But they will likely have their own inspirational captain Kane Williamson back when they take to the field against England. They also have one of the most potent seam-bowling attacks in the world, with the likes of Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson perfectly equipped to bowl in the swinging conditions on offer in England.
England also have to play India, surely the best team in the world and already 2-1 up in the series, and a resurgent South Africa, who have beaten India and Bangladesh in South Africa recently, as well as earning a very creditable draw away from home against the Black Caps. That is a formidable slate of opponents for Stokes to come up against in his first summer as captain. Particularly because confidence must be desperately low in the England camp.
They were mauled in the Ashes and although the batting unit looked to have regained some fluency in the West Indies, they collapsed like a house of cards as soon as they were asked to bat on a difficult wicket in Grenada. The opening combination, in particular, remains a concern with Alex Lees looking out of his depth against Test quality bowling attacks and Zak Crawley, for all his talent, does not appear to have the right temperament for Test cricket.
The return of James Anderson and Stuart Broad will be a boost, with the pair still the best that England have to offer with the ball, whilst Chris Woakes is also far more effective in England than he is abroad. But England’s struggles have not been on that side of equation. The bowling ranks are well-stocked, but they cannot win matches unless given a score to bowl out. Time and time again, the English batters have failed to give them that.
It is a team in poor repair and it is asking a great deal of Stokes to find a way to get it functioning properly again. Particularly when the team were already so reliant on his contributions with bat and ball. Which raises the question: are England asking too much of Stokes? Captaining a team is a weighty responsible and one that previous all-rounders have struggled with, including Ian Botham and Freddie Flintoff. The example of the latter is perhaps particularly illuminating.
Flintoff was charged with leading an unbalanced England side into the 2006-07 Ashes, a series in which they were roundly thrashed. He struggled with both bat and ball in that series with the responsibility of the captaincy clearly affecting him, and England were unable to cope without him. England can ill afford for the same thing to happen to Stokes this summer. He appears better-suited to captaincy than Flintoff, but it is still a risk for England to further burden their star man.
They had little choice in appointing Stokes. A change was clearly needed with Root burned out, but English cricket has rarely been in such a parlous state. It has also never needed a player of Stokes’ considerable gifts more. It is hard to escape the feeling that Stokes is probably the right man at the wrong time. After all, if England’s dreadful form continues into this summer, as looks likely, how long will it be before even the lionhearted Stokes starts to doubt himself?
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