On Monday night, members of England’s men’s Test team taking part in the ongoing series with South Africa – and a handful of others – filed into the Ham Yard Hotel in central London for the premiere of Ben Stokes: Phoenix From The Ashes.
But as England trained on Tuesday afternoon at Emirates Old Trafford, ahead of the second Test, which begins on Thursday, there was an unshakable sense that the players knew their talismanic captain much better. Maybe not with respect to persona or humor, or habits and desires. But about why he is who he is, how he has become who he is. And fundamentally, the fact that he is their leader and one of the best cricketers this county has produced is as much because of and in spite of circumstances.
Players left the theater stunned to be presented with red eyes and cold trauma from a man coach Brendon McCullum jokes is often seen by those around him as “bionic”. Some of those in attendance who contributed to the film as a talking head knew the framing of the film, but were still affected by seeing a comrade speak out about their concerns on the big screen. Conversations in private brought into the brightest lights.
Despite his humility, there is much more to the former captain than that. And of all the reviews published so far, perhaps the most important comes ahead of Friday’s release from Root. He certainly believes that the film will have enhanced Stokes’ status among the group and thus inspire a dressing room to come in handy for him.
“I think it’s very powerful what he’s done, to be honest,” Root said. “To share his journey and his story and everything he’s had to go through. Not just with us as a team, but the rest of the world. I think that’s a pretty powerful thing, and you know, I can’t see how it won’t better the environment we play in. And it takes a lot of courage and shows good leadership, that it’s okay to not feel good sometimes, and to ask for help and go and do what he’s done. So that can only be a good thing .
“When you see everything he’s worked on and put it all together and think it’s only in a four or five year period – wow. You can forget that. Everything that has consumed that period and weighed on him throughout the journey and I think that is quite remarkable that he is where he is now through all that.”
Root admitted that there were topics even he was unaware of. Although he expected that would be something Stokes kept to himself, even though the pair are thick as thieves. “You know Ben – he hasn’t always had an easy time telling everybody where he is, how he’s doing,” Root said.
It will be fascinating to see how Root fares with Stokes going forward in a professional capacity. So far he has focused on scoring runs, with 583 at 83.28 and three centuries across five Tests this summer, although a blip of 8 and 6 at Lord’s coincided with the first defeat under Stokes and new head coach Brendon McCullum. Root was told that in the last two years, if he does not score a Test fifty, England lose. Usually he puts it on himself: “Well, that’s your job, to score runs, as a hitter. It’s something you take pride in, you want to contribute to wins. That’s part of it. The better you get, the more there are expectations.”
But after watching the documentary, he might wonder how the captaincy could exacerbate some of the issues Stokes has raised. Because no one knows better than Root how the role can grind you down. The lows during his five years in charge were such that recognition of his undoubted quality as one of the best batsmen – if not the best Test batter – this country has produced was overshadowed by criticism of his captaincy.
By the end, the barbs and pressure, especially on the back of a second demoralizing Ashes defeat and then a loss in the Caribbean, had begun to rob him and his loved ones of his true self. “I would have loved to lead my country,” he said in his exit statement. “But recently it’s hit home how much it’s taken on me and the impact it’s had on me away from the game.”
No one will be more aware of these signs than Root. And it may be that while Stokes takes on the role of captain by sympathizing with his players and encouraging them to do their best while at times sacrificing himself, the former skipper must bring empathy to ensure his friend has all necessary support in one. of the most challenging jobs.
“I think it’s just a good example for everyone that regardless of what may be perceived on the outside, everyone has these vulnerabilities and can get themselves into a very difficult place. To get out of there, you need help and support from others. It is a great wake-up call. You have to make sure that the guys around you [are okay] and do what you can to reach out when the time is right or if you see something.
“I love batting and I love Ben. I’ve said it enough times! I want to try and help us win as many games as possible and score as many runs as I can. It’s very simple for me. I don’t play cricket to be the best captain or score the most runs, I play to win games and enjoy it with the boys I play with.”
Vithushan Ehantharajah is the Associate Editor of ESPNcricinfo