On Monday evening, members of the England men’s Test squad 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.
However, as England trained on Tuesday afternoon at Emirates Old Trafford, ahead of the second Test, which begins on Thursday, there was an unshakeable sense the players knew their talismanic captain a lot better. Maybe not with regards to persona or humour, or wonts and desires. But of why he is who he is, how he has come to be who he is. And, fundamentally, how the fact he is their leader and one of the best cricketers this county has produced is as much because of and despite circumstance.
Players left the theatre struck by being presented with the red-eyes and cold trauma of a man coach Brendon McCullum jokes is often regarded by those around him as “bionic”. Some of those present who contributed to the film as a talking head knew the framing of the movie but were still affected by seeing a mate come forward about their anxieties on the big screen. Conversations in private brought into the brightest lights.
Despite his humility, there is a lot more from the former captain than that. And of all the reviews published so far, perhaps the most important ahead of Friday’s release comes from Root. He believes absolutely that the film will have enhanced Stokes’ status amongst the group and thus inspire a dressing room to come good 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 that he’s had to go through. Not just with us as team but the rest of the world. I think it’s quite a powerful thing and, you know, I can’t see how it won’t better the environment that we’re playing in. And it takes great courage and shows great leadership actually, that it’s okay to not be okay sometimes, and to ask for help and go and do what he’s done. So it can only be a good thing.
“When you see everything that he’s dealt with and put it all together and think that’s only in a four- or five-year period – wow. You can forget that. Everything that’s engulfed that period of time and weighed upon him throughout that journey, and I think it’s quite remarkable actually that he is where he is now having been through all that.”
Root admitted there were topics even he wasn’t aware of. Though he expected there would be some stuff Stokes kept to himself, even if the pair are thick as thieves. “You know Ben – he has not always found it easy to tell everyone where he’s at, how he’s feeling,” Root said.
It will be fascinating to see how Root is 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, though a blip of 8 and 6 at Lord’s coincided with the first defeat under Stokes and new head coach Brendon McCullum. It was put to Root that over the last two years, if he does not make one fifty in the Test, England lose. Typically, he lays that on himself: “Well, it’s your job, to score runs, as a batter. It’s something you pride yourself on, you want to contribute to wins. That’s part and parcel of it. The better you get the more expectation there is.”
But after watching the documentary, he might wonder how captaincy may exacerbate some of the issues Stokes has raised. Because no one knows better than Root just how the role can grind you down. The troughs across his five years in charge were such that acknowledgement of his undoubted quality as one of the best batters – if not the best Test batter – this country has produced was dwarfed by criticism of his captaincy.
By the end, the barbs and pressure, particularly off the back of a second demoralising Ashes defeat and then a loss in the Caribbean, had started to rob him and loved ones of his true self. “I had loved leading my country,” he said in his exit statement. “But recently it’s hit home how much of a toll it has taken on me and the impact it has had on me away from the game.”
No one will be more aware of those signs than Root. And it might be that while Stokes takes it upon himself to captain by sympathy to his players and encourage them to show their best selves while at times sacrificing himself, the former skipper must bring the empathy to ensure his friend has all the necessary support in one of the most challenging jobs.
“I think it’s just a great example to everyone that regardless of what may be perceived on the outside everyone has those vulnerabilities and can get themselves into a very difficult place. To come from there you do need help and support from others. It’s a great wake-up call. You’ve got to make sure the guys around you [are okay] and do what you can to reach out when the time’s right or if you see something.
“I love batting and I love Ben. I’ve said it enough times! I want to try to help us win as many games as possible and score as many runs as I can. It’s very easy for me. I don’t play cricket to be the best captain or score the most runs, I play to win games and enjoy that with the lads I play with.”
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo