He dragged England from the brink in the 2019 World Cup final to help record the most dramatic victory in cricket history, then single-handedly delivered one of the most stunning turnarounds the Test arena has ever known at Headingley seven weeks later.
Chuck in his incredible 258 against South Africa in 2016, his Player of the Series performances with bat and ball in the same country four years later and his general ability to provide game-changing spells on a regular basis, and Ben Stokes’ place among England’s all-time elite has long been unquestionable.
But now he takes on perhaps the most unforgiving role in all of sport, with England’s new managing director Rob Key having announced on Thursday that Stokes has been appointed the 67th permanent captain in the country’s long Test history.
Following Joe Root’s resignation earlier this month, Stokes was always the likely successor. Not only was he the Yorkshireman’s vice-captain and right-hand man, but he is also the only other player beyond Root whose place is not open to question right now.
With Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad having been used sparingly in the latter years of their careers – and even downright dumped for the recent defeat in the West Indies – Stokes is the only senior member of the side who could realistically have been chosen, despite him having previously claimed he had no aspiration to be handed the leadership role.
“That’s not an aspiration of mine. It’s just not one of those things I’m desperate to do,” Stokes told BBC Radio 4 in 2019.
“I’m very happy at the moment being vice-captain, we’ve got a great leader in Joe.
“You never know how you handle the pressure of being England captain unless you do it. Being the Test captain of England — so much pressure comes with it. It’s a huge burden to carry because everything falls back on you, especially if it goes bad, and you never know how you’ll handle that pressure until you walk out onto the field as England captain.
“So I’ve got no idea how I’d handle it if I did it but, as I say, it’s not an aspiration of mine.”
And Stokes has gone through high-profile turmoil away from the field which has seen his attention taken away from cricket with some regularity in recent years. In 2018 he was acquitted of affray after a high-profile court case following an incident outside a Bristol nightclub. And while he was later thanked by a gay couple he was defending he was nonetheless charged by the ECB with bringing the game into disrepute, to which he pleaded guilty and accepted an eight-match ban.
More recently he took three months out of the game during 2021 to deal with a finger injury and – more pertinently – mental health issues at a time when he was still coming to terms with the death of his father, Ged, in late 2020. While he returned for the Ashes series down under, Ben later said that he felt he’d let his teammates down with his performances in Australia.
And now that he has been handed the poisoned chalice at a time when England’s playing stocks appear particularly emptied, the pressures of being front and centre of the world cricketing spotlight will only increase.
Most of England’s longest-reigning captains have been their recent leaders. Root’s 63 games in charge are a national record, with his predecessor Alastair Cook next on 59. But it is hard to imagine Stokes as a long-term leader. Having said for some time that captaincy might not be his bag, and with his character being such that he has no problem withdrawing himself from the limelight when he needs to, one would have to believe that he will know when the time is right to go, even if that happens to be relatively soon.
But what England need from Stokes right now is some stability. Broad and Anderson will be welcomed back to the fold ahead of the summer series with New Zealand and South Africa, along with the final Test of last year’s aborted face-off against India, and the hope will be that something of a settled batting lineup can be found under the new leadership. And if Stokes can play a part in making that happen over the next 12 months then he will already have done his job.
We can only hope that Stokes the skipper has even 10 per cent of the impact as Stokes the player has had in his Test career thus far. It will be a rollercoaster ride, with thrills and spills undoubtedly punctuating the course of his captaincy. And if he can help to identify his long-term successor in the meantime, then all the better.