MARTIN SAMUEL: Ben Stokes’ mental health issues make this nomination a huge gamble – he was the outstanding candidate, but it will put more pressure on a man whose body and mind were creaking
- Ben Stokes has been announced as the new England Test captain – a huge gamble
- He’s brilliant and was the top contender, but mental wellbeing casts a cloud
- Protecting him was one of the reasons Stokes quit at international level in July
- This role will put more pressure on a man whose body and mind creaked
Ben Stokes will therefore be England captain and we should all politely forget that less than a year ago he was unavailable for his country with mental health issues.
Certainly, no one disputes that there were many suitable alternatives. England cannot promote players who are too young or who are clearly struggling for their best form, and the most gifted county captains would be completely overwhelmed in a Testing arena.
Stokes was the No. 1 pick in a field of one. He is quite a brilliant player, an outstanding candidate and if it were a general election he would be re-elected with a landslide victory and elected to 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 throws a veil. Protecting her was one of the reasons given when Stokes stepped down from international duties last July. There have been injuries too, and that’s another problem that won’t go away, but physical torment is part of the athlete’s lot.
Stokes finger pain or knee pain comes with the territory. Whether the ECB is handing one of sport’s most demanding roles to a man who most recently struggled mentally with less than that workload is another matter. There is a duty of care. There is a new thought. Stokes may be feeling fine now, but there were few indications of angst before. His announcement came as a shock to almost everyone.
So it’s still a huge bet. Not just for Stokes, who already bears the brunt of being the team’s talismanic match-winner, but also for the ECB.
Mental wellbeing casts a veil, and protecting it is one of the reasons Stokes quit in July
The appointment is a huge gamble, both for Stokes (above, centre) and also for the ECB
Not so long ago, Jonathan Trott was brought back from an unstable Ashes tour to deal with the traumatic surface of stress-related issues that had challenged him for years. The ECB was moving cautiously around its role, what could be done differently.
The following days were full of debates around the mental pressures on top athletes, the way the age of celebrity obsession added to the strain of a top role.
It was pointed out that England traveled to Australia with an 82-page booklet detailing 194 specific recipes and catering requirements. Lunch was to contain grilled eggplant, red pepper, mashed red onion and basil or avocado, raw coleslaw and white beans. Players are built to feel so important that they can’t even have a sandwich like everyone else.
Stokes’ role could now put more pressure on a man whose body and mind were cracking
New England cricket manager Rob Key says skipper ’embodies everything we need’
So, of course, when the form deserts them, the crash is all the greater. Such were the conversations in 2013. And now, in this rarefied atmosphere, comes Captain Stokes because, well, what else was there to do?
The counter argument is that mental health should not be stigmatized. An episode about a brief period in Stokes’ life, as he faced isolation from the cursed Covid bubbles and the recent loss of his father, should it prevent him from getting the job he clearly desires and deserves at the same time? If Stokes says he’s fine now, shouldn’t that be enough?
This is clearly what the ECB also said to itself. There will have been assessments, assurances. It was not rushed. In the end, however, there was no alternative. English cricket will now pile even more pressure on a man whose body and mind were already cracking under the pressure. We can only hope for the best and wish him good luck.