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The making of Ben Stokes, England captain: Why natural leader's innate feeling for the game trumps his inexperience

Stokes' coaches in the Durham academy regarded him as among the shrewdest cricketers for his age, but was he captaincy material?

Joe Root and Ben Stokes discuss field placings
Ben Stokes (right) will captain England against West Indies in Joe Root's absence Credit: AFP

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大发体育网站Joe Root only captained Yorkshire in three County Championship games - famously failing to defend 471 in his first game and earning the moniker “craptain” - and one England Lions match before taking over as Test skipper. Virat Kohli led in just three Indian first-class matches before first captaining in a Test. 

Yet even such limited experiences are bountiful compared with Ben Stokes’ preparation for being England’s 81st Test captain. You have to go back to May 2008 for Stokes’ most recent game as captain of a cricket side. In South Lanarkshire, Stokes led Durham Academy against Scotland U-19s. Stokes hit 103, but Scotland later clinched a three-wicket win. All told, Stokes’ experience of captaincy comprises three games for Durham’s youth sides - one for their U-17s, and two for the academy. 

Even at Cockermouth Cricket Club, which he represented as a boy, Stokes was not captain. “He was never the captain of any of our junior teams, and he didn't really have a desire to want to be,” recalls Jon Gibson, Stokes’ coach at Cockermouth.

大发体育网站Cockermouth’s age-group team was so strong that, for all Stokes’ qualities on the field, he was not even official vice-captain. Stokes has never been the sort to need a title to lead, but Gibson does not recall him being greatly involved in team strategy. 

“He thought a lot about his own tactics, which was to play attacking cricket and to make sure that you were challenging the opposition. But I don't remember anything specifically about, 'I think we should have three slips, I think we should change the bowling, I think we should do this, or do that'. He just did everything he could to win.”

大发体育网站While his tactical prowess was secondary to his on-field explosiveness, Stokes’ coaches in the Durham academy regarded him as among the shrewdest cricketers for his age.

大发体育网站“I always thought and always said to the other coaches that he had qualities as a captain,” recalls Geoff Cook, Stokes’ long-time coach with the Durham academy and then the first team. “Sometimes those qualities were overshadowed by his general behaviour at that stage, but in terms of the qualities that are needed for cricket captaincy, or captaincy generally in terms of setting examples, in terms of tactical awareness, he was always well ahead of everybody.” 

大发体育网站Stokes’ teammates also noticed the same. “He was always above his age in terms of maturity cricket-wise,” remembers Paul Hindmarch, who played in Stokes’ last two games as Durham academy captain. “He was always a switched-on cricketer.” 

Stokes was already considered a potential future Durham captain before his England career limited his county appearances. “If he'd been a regular player then he'd have been high on the list,” Cook says. 

“Captains - you want someone who is respected in the dressing room, someone who wants to really lead from the front,” Hindmarch says. “Those are the two most important things and he really does that so everyone will play for him. He'll very much lead by example through his actions. He was never a big talker about the game but I still think he'll be a good captain.” 

大发体育网站Still, there was no grand plan behind Stokes’ elevation for Durham academy’s two games against Scotland U-19s. “I wish I could say it was a bit more prophetic but we try and give all of the players some captaincy experience,” chuckles John Windows, Durham’s academy manager. “Ben was a natural for that type of thing - natural leader of men, so when the opportunity arose it was pretty straightforward. We just said, 'Ben, can you captain these two games'?” 

大发体育网站Even these two matches in May 2008 provide a little hint about the sort of captain Stokes could be. 

Ben Stokes always had an attacking mindset Credit: GETTY IMAGES

大发体育网站“As a captain, from what I remember, he was very aggressive in terms of his mindset - wanting to take wickets,” recalls Richard Coughtrie, who played extensively with Stokes in the Durham academy and later played for Gloucestershire. “He always had a very innate understanding of the game and he just knows where fielders should be and he had this very true feeling for the game really. That's how he was back in 2008. A lot of water’s gone under the bridge since then but he has this true feeling for the game. 

“He’s a hard cricketer and he captained hard. His captaincy was very much like his play with the bat and ball and in the field. It was very clear from an early age he was a natural leader.” 

“He's always had a really good cricket brain - as you would imagine, lead from the front, courageous, brave, real sensible cricket brain, but pretty much attack first mentality,” says Windows. “It won't all be attack, attack, attack, he knows the game. And it probably does him a disservice to say he's just a natural attacker - even that innings at Headingley he sat in and defended the night before.

“Although the attacking prowess always catches the eye, he's a pretty shrewd reader of the game and able to do what's necessary for the team to be successful in any situation so I do think he'll be an excellent captain. I've always thought he'd be really smart.” 

大发体育网站And when Stokes walks out as Durham’s first Test captain next week, it will be another source of pride for England's newest first-class county. “It's fantastic isn't it,” says Cook. “Absolutely brilliant - it's just another milestone chalked up in a very short history.”