Shortly after England’s memorable win in Multan, Ben Stokes was asked by a Pakistani reporter whether his side should be allowed to ‘change the methodology’ of Test cricket.
The old Stokes might have bristled. The new Stokes smiled, paused, and gave a considered answer about his team’s change in attitude over the past few astonishing months. He was relaxed, articulate and polite. Leadership comes in many forms. Perhaps Stokes has surprised even himself.
Whichever direction Bazball takes, and the immediate ambition is a historic 3-0 whitewash of Pakistan, starting in Karachi on Saturday, Stokes is already jostling for a place in the pantheon of England’s most significant captains.
Ben Stokes (centre) has made a huge impact since becoming England Test captain in April
Stokes has just led his side to an impressive series win in Pakistan with a game to spare
It is not just that they keep winning. It is where they have come from – one win out of 17 under Joe Root, eight out of nine since.
And it is how they are being talked about, with Australia the latest in a long line of opponents to suggest the new style will not work against them in next summer’s Ashes.
Even by the usual metrics of measuring leadership, Stokes is challenging perceptions. It seems too narrow, now, to say greatness cannot be conferred until you have won in Australia, as only Len Hutton, Ray Illingworth, Mike Brearley, Mike Gatting and Andrew Strauss have done since the Second World War.
In any case, that has always been too simple. Gatting’s wins at Brisbane and Melbourne were his only victories from 23 Tests in charge. As for Stokes, he will not get his chance until 2025-26.
We are often impressed, too, by series that become instant history. Douglas Jardine threatened diplomatic ties between Britain and Australia with his bodyline tactics in 1932-33. Michael Vaughan helped end 16 years of Ashes misery in 2005. Strauss won three Tests Down Under by an innings 12 winters ago.
Stokes has changed the way England play their Test cricket since he took over the captaincy
But leg-theory was soon outlawed and Vaughan’s team never again took the field together. Even Strauss’ side fell off a cliff. Stokes’ intention, by contrast, is to create a legacy, to change the way Tests are played. His vision is altogether grander, maybe impossibly so. But its scale and ambition are glorious.
Even the traditional method of totting up wins looks inadequate. Last year, Root became the most victorious England captain, with 27 victories. Then again, he also became their most defeated captain, with 26 losses.
Peter May, with 20 wins, helped turn England into the best side in the world in the 1950s, but the Test scene had less depth back then.
Brearley’s record of 18 wins and four losses was helped by three factors – he never led England against the all-conquering West Indies, his 5-1 triumph in 1978-79 came against an Australia weakened by defections to Kerry Packer, and he had peak Ian Botham.
Illingworth was being unkind when he called Brearley ‘the luckiest captain ever’, but leaders need good fortune. Botham, whose 12 Tests in charge included nine against West Indies, may agree.
Nasser Hussain also made a huge difference to English cricket when he became captain
Others have done as the cliche asks and led from the front, opening the batting and scoring plenty of runs. Think of Graham Gooch, Mike Atherton or Alastair Cook. But Stokes has set a different kind of example.
It is not that he is scoring more runs now he is in charge, it is that he is doing so more quickly – 78 per 100 balls, compared with 57 in the ranks. It is a typically selfless gesture and his team-mates have all signed up. At Rawalpindi, England raced along at 6.73 an over, a record across two innings of a Test.
A useful comparison is with Nasser Hussain. Like Stokes, he tried to change the mindset of English cricket, turning them from the losers who were bottom of the Wisden Test Championship in 1999 to a gutsy side capable of winning in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Even that, though, does not capture the magnitude of what Stokes is trying to pull off. Hussain was focused on England. Stokes has an entire game in his sights and has to be careful not to sound preachy when he explains why Test cricket is worth saving.
Andrew Strauss led England to a stunning Ashes win in Australia in 2010-11
If his team keep thriving, so much the better – Stokes’ win percentage of 80 (including a one-off defeat in 2020 by West Indies when Root took paternity leave) is higher than any other England captain with a minimum of 10 Tests.
These are early days, but he seems to be encompassing the best of his predecessors. The single-mindedness of Jardine and Hussain, the man-management of Brearley and Vaughan, the street-wisdom of Illingworth and the dressing room popularity of Root.
He is as tactically astute as any and hell-bent on entertainment. Above all, he has presence.
Stokes is on a mission. The pantheon? He is already there. If England carry on, he will finish right at the top.
David Lloyd – Stokes will smash the rest!
The best captain I’ve seen was Ian Chappell. A leader of men, firm and with great foresight. His Australia players would run through brick walls for him. But we are talking England captains.
Mike Brearley is always talked about and he was a great man-manager who had some big personalities to deal with. He was the stand-out. I worked with Mike Atherton and he doesn’t get the praise he deserves as captain. He really cared about his team and each individual in it.
Then you’ve got Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan. Nasser was a no-nonsense, wonderful captain, fabulous tactically. Vaughan was very innovative and always two or three steps ahead of the game. He was willing to be un-English and take the opposition on.
But from what we’ve seen so far from Ben Stokes – he’s going to smash them! He’s a revelation.
Michael Vaughan (left) led England to Ashes glory in 2005, and was an innovative captain
Nasser Hussain – Stokes will be judged on the Ashes
I always looked up to Mike Brearley, particularly for the way he got the best out of Ian Botham. And you only have to look at what has happened to England in Australia before 2010-11 and since to recognise how special Andrew Strauss’s Ashes win there was.
Michael Vaughan has to be right up there because in 2005 he gave us the best Ashes series we’ve ever witnessed. When everyone else was hiding behind their sofas he was so cool under pressure.
When Ben Stokes finishes he will probably rank as the best of the lot but I don’t know where he stands now. He will have to do it against Australia home and away because England captains are generally judged on that but he’s ticking all the boxes already – he has Brearley’s man-management and Vaughan’s calmness and tactical nous. I’m sure he will end up as one of England’s most influential captains.
Mike Brearley deserves immense credit for getting the best out of Ian Botham
Paul Newman – Stokes can be best of the lot
Nasser Hussain takes some beating as an England captain as far as I’m concerned. I first saw the potential in Nasser’s captaincy when I reported on the England A tour of Pakistan in 1995. At that stage no one was thinking of him as a future England captain, but he was an absolute natural.
Look at how low England cricket was when he and Duncan Fletcher took over in 1999. They were bottom of the world! But Nasser dragged them up by their bootstraps and laid the foundations for what followed when Michael Vaughan took over.
Now Ben Stokes is proving an exceptional captain on all levels, surpassing all expectations. I still worry he will expect too much of himself physically but I was encouraged to see him not bowling in Multan. If he looks after himself and continues like this, he will be the best of the lot.
Stokes could be the best captain England have ever had if he remains injury-free