Book Review - Ben Stokes: On Fire

Ben Stokes brings a how-we-did-it focus on everything that happened in an incredible year of English cricket
15:00, 28 Nov 2019

Like rugby, cricket fancies itself as a bit of a proving ground for leadership and performance techniques, packed with valuable lessons for those striving to make a difference in a corporate environment.

A mere glance at the contents of On Fire suggests Stokes has gone full management consultant: Focus, Attitude, Smarts, Belief give a flavour of the chapter titles.

“Years like this do not come around very often,” is his understated introduction to a book built around the two against-all-odds innings that brought global audiences to a state of such incredulity this summer - the one that won England the World Cup and the 135* at Headingley that kept England in the Ashes.

Children too young to fully understand why their parents were screaming at the television will remember this as the summer they were twice left forgotten in bathwater that cooled to room temperature.

Sensationalists, be warned - there is nothing here for anyone hoping to read “Ben Stokes: My Night on the Cobbles.”

On Fire, by Ben Stokes. Headline, £20

The “incident” receives no mention. Instead, he runs through the summer’s full card; the World Cup, the Ashes series and a Test against Ireland sandwiched in between, with an analytical, how-we-did-it focus on everything that happened on the field, building to the two great moments.

Pitch conditions, the qualities of different bowlers, weather, captaincy decisions, mental and physical preparation (he doesn’t eat during matches), stroke selection, innings construction; these are the big ingredients.

The result is something like a Guardian Over-by-Over report as if it was written by one of the fearsome instructors on SAS: Who Dares Wins who talk people into frozen lakes. 90mph bouncers are problems to be processed. Pressure is something you live with. So while the whole country was twice going berserk, Stokes, in the eye of the hysteria, approached those innings with a blend of cool-headed, technical intensity and utter conviction that he was going to achieve his goal.

Though aware of the crowd doing “shoes off” and going mental, he was psychotically methodical in contrast, knowing exactly what his next stroke was going to be, even if that stroke was reverse sweeping a fast bowler.

And while reaching his targets brings emotion, celebration and ample opportunity to be grumpy with the press, perhaps the real mark of Stokes comes in his sustained post-Headingley focus: “I had other things to concentrate my mind upon. There were no rock ’n’ roll excesses… No, for me, it was straight home to cut the grass.”

The “Husqvarna automower” had got stuck in the trees, reports sergeant Stokes, and “I’m very particular about my grass looking tidy.”

So a unique perspective on two epochal sporting dramas, and plenty left over for the business schools to chew on too.

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