As England prepare to take on New Zealand, looking to win back-to-back Tests on home soil for the first time in almost two years, Ben Stokes will once again take centre stage. His first outing as captain saw him ride his luck on a personal level, as he was dismissed via a Colin de Grandhomme no-ball in the second innings before going on to make 54, which sent England on the path towards victory.
New Zealand will come back fighting, and De Grandhomme is unlikely to have the same shocker he had at Lord’s, but on this early showing it seems Stokes is well-suited to the captaincy role. His unquestionable ability made him the standout candidate, but it is his personality that can take England to new heights.
As some of his interviews have shown, he may not be the accomplished talker that Joe Root was, but that will develop in time. To be frank, he isn't the England Test captain to give eloquent lines for journalists. He’s the England Test captain because he’s the best man to lead this group of players in the Brendon McCullum era.
Stokes has always been England’s uncut diamond in the rough, but the new level of responsibility is meant to polish and set him as the crown jewel of McCullum’s England. At 31, he has grown into himself after some time away from the game. The Bristol nightclub incident tarnished him, but this is a man who has not been afraid to do what is right for himself.
In 2020, he took some time away from England duty to spend time with his ill father, who died from brain cancer later that year. It was around this time last year that he took an extended break from the sport to focus on his mental health, before returning for the Ashes campaign in Australia.
These are not selfish decisions by any means, but they are big ones and, as captain, Stokes will face many more in the years to come. But on the pitch, this is a man who thrives under the spotlight. When it was him against the world on that day at Headingley he produced for his country. He stepped up in that World Cup final in 2019 when all seemed lost. He’s England’s main man, and he has the personality to deal with the pressure that the captaincy brings.
McCullum will take responsibility for a lot of the big decisions early on, but Stokes’ on-field presence and field management will be tested again in this Second Test. One thing is for certain, England need to get the best out of Root to be successful, and in taking the captaincy off him, he is now free to focus on what he does better than anybody else in the world. Batting and batting and batting.
This is no slight on his character, but it felt as if when he replaced Sir Alastair Cook in 2017 it was simply because he was the best player. He still is, but that doesn’t make him the best leader. Similar to Harry Kane from a footballing perspective, the Tottenham Hotspur man is only the England captain because he is a guaranteed starter and the best player. He’s not captain of Spurs and doesn’t appear to show any of the usual leadership abilities, but he is respected by his peers because of his ability.
For Kane, the captaincy has been a complete privilege and elevated his game to a new level. Since taking the armband he has won a World Cup Golden Boot, taken the Three Lions to a World Cup semi-final and a European Championship final and hit 50 goals for his country.
For Joe Root on the other hand, his performances suffered under the weight of the captaincy. There were a whole host of mitigating factors that meant the team results were poor, but the numbers speak for themselves. The Yorkshire batsman averages 53.64 when he doesn’t captain the side vs 46.45 as Test skipper. An unbeaten 115 pushed that average up and took England to victory in the first Test, to the delight of Stokes.
Root's quiet and unassuming manner means that the captaincy disrupted his game more than he would care to admit. His personality isn’t suited to being the go-to man. He isn’t shy by any means, but a quieter environment allows him to do his best work. Send him out to bat, and watch one of the best in the world do his thing without any outside pressures. Instead let the giant personality that is Ben Stokes absorb that media scrutiny and deal with the fallout.
It's early days, and we will learn more over the remainder of this series, but so far England’s swap is bringing the best out of both Root and Stokes’ differing personalities.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change