It’s a ghostly Ben Stokes that we first see in Phoenix from the Ashes: pale, gaunt and affectless, a shadow of the charismatic force cricket fans are used to. He’s sitting opposite “cricket fanatic” and Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes, and there’s some small talk and camera adjustments before the interview begins. It’s August 2021, and the famous all-rounder is not well. In fact, only a fortnight earlier, he experienced his first anxiety attack while in a Nottingham hotel room. It felt as if his “heart was sweating”, and from the bathroom he breathlessly called his manager for advice. Soon, there were other attacks: while signing a fan’s ball at the drycleaners; when picking his son up from a kid’s party. “Things have been building up for a while, and it’s shown its teeth now,” he says.
Stokes could have rescheduled the interview with Mendes, which was intended to anchor this feature-length documentary about his career. But Stokes had committed to something honest, and if this was his state at the time of the interview then so be it. Later in the documentary, we’ll watch Stokes watch the interview – six months have passed – and he’s surprised at how little he remembers of what he said. It’s almost as if he’s watching someone else. “I was fucked,” he says.
Australians might remember the English summer of 2019 as the summer of Steve Smith – he averaged a stupendous 110.5 runs in those Ashes, his first Test series since returning from a year-long ban for his role in the ball-tampering scandal – but for the English, it will forever be the summer of Ben Stokes.
First there was the World Cup, both hosted and won by England in a final that has claim to being the most dramatic match ever played, and in which Stokes distinguished himself with both bat and ball. Having tied New Zealand’s total, forcing each side to play one “super over” as a tie breaker, Stokes tells us that in between he had a quiet cigarette in the changing room shower – a small, precious moment away from the crowds and the cameras.
It would blunt the drama of the documentary if it recorded the absurd technicality upon which England won that World Cup, a technicality that, when drafted by the International Cricket Council, was presumably felt would never be needed. Tied after their 50 overs, England and New Zealand remained tied after their super over: both sides scored 15. Instead of playing another, the obscure rule was triggered: as England had scored more boundaries, it was declared the winner. It’s a large asterisk to have sitting next to the title, but this was of little consequence to the English fans dancing in the streets, pubs and fountains. Nor does it diminish the folkloric swashbuckling of Stokes.
But I quibble. It was one hell of a summer for Stokes, and one that included that innings at Headingley in the third Ashes Test. Bowled out for 67 in the first innings, England were left chasing a highly improbable 362 for victory. In a performance that will be celebrated for decades, Stokes was on 61 when the very last batsman, Jack Leach, came to the crease. An Australian victory seemed assured, as well as their retention of the Ashes. Remarkably, that last wicket partnership was worth 76 runs, Stokes scored all but one of those and finished on 135 not out, and England’s highest ever run chase was achieved. Even though we know the result, the documentary’s highlights remain thrilling.
But the incredible summer almost didn’t happen. If the life of this cricketer was turned into epic verse, the “Ballad of Ben Stokes” would dedicate a few stanzas to Bristol. It was there, in the early hours of September 25, 2017, that Stokes was arrested after a street brawl in which two men were knocked unconscious. Britain’s tabloids salivated, and soon published CCTV footage of the fight, and another of Stokes sitting in the back of a police car politely asking for his handcuffs to be loosened.
It certainly looked bad, but the footage was shorn of important context. Nonetheless, Stokes was charged, dropped from the England team and missed the 2017-18 Ashes series. Newspaper articles suggested he had viciously mocked a gay couple outside a nightclub, and had drunkenly accosted a bouncer. He had become a major villain, denounced around the world wherever cricket is played. Painfully, on the advice of his lawyer, Stokes remained silent – a trial was imminent.
In 2018, Stokes was acquitted. The jury found he’d in fact intervened when two other men threatened a gay couple, and had then acted in self-defence when one of those victimisers came at him with a glass bottle. The two men on whose behalf Stokes had intervened did not testify but later described that night to media: “Stokes could see the people doing what they were doing, and how homophobic they were and how nasty they came across,” William O’Connor told ITV News.
His partner, Kai Barry, added: “I thought [Stokes] was just a normal lad, you know, sticking up for someone who was weaker than he was, which was quite nice. When I realised who he was, I thought fair play, because he’s obviously put his career at risk for someone that he never knew.”
After the verdict, Stokes’s lawyer read a statement outside the court: “This has been a very difficult period for Ben. He’s had to maintain his silence at times when many on social media and certain parts of the press predetermined his guilt long before the trial began.”
Stokes felt betrayed and was suddenly denuded of his passion for the game. He flirted with leaving cricket, but his teammates and manager persuaded him to hang in there. In Phoenix from the Ashes, it’s obvious how difficult this period remains. While he doesn’t name names, nor specify his grievances, it’s clear that Stokes remains contemptuous of the press, and still feels the sting of betrayal from the “suits” who were inadequately supportive of him. Asked if he was still angry or bitter, Stokes is typically blunt: “It’s still there. Always will be.”
Confirming for Stokes that the media are “pieces of shit”, as he puts it to Mendes, in 2019 The Sun published a story about an obscene tragedy that befell his mother and her children before Stokes’s birth. The family sued for invasion of privacy and eventually settled last year. The Sun apologised.
Then, in 2020, his father, Ged Stokes, a former rugby league player and coach, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. When Stokes was a young man, his parents returned to their native New Zealand and, after the diagnosis, that’s where Stokes flies. We watch him spend time with his father, going for drives, re-gripping his bats, feeding ducks at a local park. The cancer is swift and merciless, and Stokes realises it will probably be the last time that he’ll see his father. Ged Stokes died in December that year, aged 65. Ben Stokes was 29 at the time. Things were building.
Phoenix from the Ashes is a fairly commercial production. There’s generous use of the kinetic montage, which offers plenty of colour and noise but says little, and there’s also some silly and unsubtle symbolism: the warrior athlete standing alone on a grey and rocky shore, eyes cast beyond the hostile sea towards the horizon. Maybe it’s just meant to appear moody. Or perhaps we’re to assume that Stokes is a modern Viking, and his burdens are as elemental as the cliffs and the waves he impassively surveys. Either way, it’s overwrought.
There’s sufficient drama in Stokes’s cricketing achievements, the intimacy of his trip to New Zealand and his reticent but anguished interview with Mendes. “I’ve never been a talker,” Stokes says, and so it’s something for him to speak plainly about his panic attacks and subsequent medication.
The final twist – not that the story of Ben Stokes is over – is his return to cricket after a self-imposed four-month break, and his elevation to the Test captaincy in April this year, something that would have seemed unthinkable five years ago. “I’ve got a lot of experience with what life can throw at you,” Stokes says. That experience now includes holding the typically poisoned chalice of English captaincy.
Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes is streaming on Amazon Prime.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "Stokes rising".
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