For large parts of his phenomenal England career, Ben Stokes has been spoken of in the same breath as Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff.
As an all-conquering all-rounder with a miracle streak, that’s exactly the sort of thing you welcome. Any England cricketer would be delighted to earn Botham and Flintoff comparisons.
At least until it comes to captaincy. Which is where the whole discussion just became problematic, given Stokes was confirmed as Joe Root’s successor as Test skipper on Thursday.
Players like Botham, Flintoff and Stokes are superhero sportsmen, performers for whom everything is possible and logic need not apply. Lumber them with the daily grind, catastrophising and admin of captaincy in the longest format and their powers are sapped.
Botham and Flintoff’s brief and dire stints in charge are held up as iron-clad cases against ever making an all-rounder your captain. But neither’s experience provides a good enough argument against appointing Stokes, who was the only credible choice for an England team in the doldrums.
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What was Ian Botham’s record as England captain?
Botham was the golden boy of English cricket when he was named captain in 1980. In a 25-Test career at that point, he averaged 40.48 with the bat and 18.52 with the ball – certifiably rock-star numbers. Everything he touched turned to gold.
The following year he departed winless in 12 Tests with eight defeats and England 1-0 down in a home Ashes series. At Lord’s he bowed out with a fourth draw but was an utterly forlorn figure – making a three-ball duck in the first innings and a golden duck in the second as the MCC members ignored his lonely trudge back up the pavilion steps.
Of course, these extremities and the dizzying heights that followed immediately are all part of the Botham legend. Mike Brearley returned from retirement as a specialist captain and Beefy razed Australia to the ground – bludgeoning centuries at Headingley and Old Trafford either side of a blistering spell of 5-1 to demolish the tourists at Edgbaston.
It’s a story of cinematic grandeur that booms over some of the more mundane details. Botham was an inexperienced captain who ran into a juggernaut of a West Indies side that accounted for much of his winless streak – each more relevant factors than him being an all-rounder cursed to go out and toss the coin.
The masterful Brearley is another person who endures in the conversation around any England captaincy appointment, to the extent that plucking someone from the county game to skipper the side was something some mused over again this time around. Unfortunately, England already have plenty of batters struggling to score enough runs to justify their place in the side.
Also, Brearley was a one-off as a leader in much the same way Botham was as a cricketer. The deeds of such individuals should never have any bearing on contemporary decision-making.
What was Andrew Flintoff’s record as England captain?
After Botham’s early 1990s retirement, a parade of all-rounders sagged under the weight of being labelled ‘The Next Ian Botham’. Flintoff was originally one of them as he battled form and fitness issues and took some time to chisel out a place for himself in the England side.
By 2004, six years on from his debut, the Lancashire hero was off and running as Michael Vaughan’s England won all seven of their summer tests against New Zealand and West Indies. The following year, Flintoff was the team’s beating heart as they bested a truly great Australia 2-1 to win an Ashes series for the first time in more than 18 years, earning unavoidable Botham comparisons.
Flintoff was expected to spearhead a golden era but a stellar side quickly started to fragment and he was left trying to hold things together. Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick were both absent for the 2006 tour of India, meaning Flintoff was thrust into the top job. In the circumstances he was initially magnificent, hitting four half-centuries and taking 11 wickets as England came from behind to claim a 1-1 draw in the three-match series.
“I had a shower to buy myself a bit of time because I didn’t know what to say,” Flintoff told Sky Sports of his team talk on the final day in Mumbai, with the decisive Test in the balance before he and veteran spinner Shaun Udal ran through India. “In my wisdom, I came out with my towel on. And then ‘Ring of Fire’ got put on the jukebox. And then I started dancing naked. I got my towel going. It’s [the towel, presumably] swinging around.”
Flintoff got dressed after Sachin Tendulkar stuck his head around the dressing room door to see what on earth was going on, decided he fancied a bowl and that was that. However, he also decided he fancied a bowl in the subsequent home series against Sri Lanka, sending down 51 second-innings overs in a maddening drawn second Test at Lord’s alone.
Such efforts contributed to Flintoff’s body breaking down in what would be the final stretch of his England career. Andrew Strauss took charge as he missed out against Pakistan later in the summer, only for Flintoff to get the nod for a brutal 5-0 battering as Australia meted out merciless revenge. That whitewash left Freddie with a final captaincy record of two wins, two draws and seven defeats.
How does Stokes compare to Flintoff?
Flintoff was able to bow out as an Ashes victor once more in 2009 under Strauss, waving farewell and running out Ricky Ponting in his 79th and final Test at the Oval. Coincidentally, Stokes has played exactly the same number of red-ball internationals for England as he prepares to lead a new chapter.
It makes this a handy juncture to highlight the differences between the two all-rounders. Stokes already has 1,200 more runs than his predecessor as talisman, while sending down almost 800 fewer overs.
The Cumbrian colossus is no stranger to putting his body through the mill with marathon spells to make something happen for England – indeed, he might need saving from doing this from time to time as captain – but his workload is that of a batting all-rounder and a fourth seamer.
You’ll travel a long way to find a better and more skillful fourth seamer, but Stokes’ weight of responsibilities does not extend to leading the bowling attack, especially in light of England’s new managing director Rob Key stating he wants James Anderson and Stuart Broad back in the Test fold for a daunting home schedule against New Zealand, India and South Africa.
We’ve already discussed Botham’s comparative inexperience as a captain, but Stokes taking the reins at the precise moment when Flintoff was walking away feels significant. He has vast reserves of elite cricket to call upon as he makes the big decisions, while there is also a handy amount of distance from his defining moments.
Flintoff first stood in for Vaughan – the fact he was never a permanent appointment is another often-overlooked aspect of his place in this debate – within a year of the 2005 Ashes. Like Botham before him, he was the man with the Midas touch and it was assumed that would continue merrily along into captaincy.
Botham had his defining moments to come after he gave up the reins. Stokes, by contrast, will probably always be defined by his heroics of 2019. Irrespective of what he achieves as captain, his career showreel will be dominated by helming a World Cup final success and that absurdly improbably heist against Australia at Headingley.
Stokes should draw a sense of tranquillity from his reputation as an England great being secure. His captaincy can embellish it but won’t ruin it.
Has Ben Stokes captained England before?
While captaincy changes and Ashes defeat are part of the tapestry for this national team, Stokes takes charge of them after a period without historical comparison. It will take us years to properly weigh the impact and strains upon players of pandemic series played in lockdown and isolation.
Stokes himself took time away from the game to address his own mental health during this period. The fact that is something that enhanced rather than diminished his leadership credentials is a welcome sign of progress. He also got a taste of captaincy and acquitted himself well.
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Root missed the first Test against West Indies due to the birth of his second child and, although England lost, Stokes contributed with scores of 43 and 46 and six wickets. He then returned from a planned lay-off last year to skipper a rookie England team selected after a COVID-19 outbreak in the camp. A 3-0 ODI series win over Pakistan spoke of the country’s enviable white-ball depth but also put a huge tick next to the stand-in captain.
Stokes sits alongside Botham and Flintoff in the pantheon of English cricket, but his route to the captaincy has been very different. He is better prepared, which is useful as he faces up to turning around a slump of one win in 17 Tests.
A paucity of top-order talent, a transition away from England’s greatest ever opening bowling partnership, the lack of a world-class spinner and an ever-disputed and flawed county system might all end up being reasons why Stokes fails. The fact he bats, bowls and catches like the cricketers of our dreams – just as Botham and Flintoff did – should be way down the list of concerns.