On a dry hot July day in London in 2013, Ben Stokes sidled into the seats in the stands at Lord’s, and sat next to the psychologist Mark Bawden. He had struggled through the season, was feeling down with his performance, so much so that his captain at Durham, Paul Collingwood, had texted him, ‘are you ok?’
He wasn’t. But he didn’t want to share his heartache with his team-mates as he didn’t want to short-change his boisterous tattoo-star image. But he realised he had to open up to someone, and he decided Bawden was the go-to man.
It’s time to do whatever it takes.
— Ben Stokes (@benstokes38) June 12, 2023
Bawden, who has worked with a few English teams, heard him out before giving his verdict that Stokes was suffering from ‘Bottle Bottle Bang’ syndrome’. In normal lingo, it meant Stokes was bottling up his frustrations inside him, and it keeps festering inside until it explodes. He had to lighten up, else the wretched rut would continue. It had been a poor summer mentally and the shot-making ability was on the wane.
And the year had started terribly when in January, he and Matt Coles were asked to leave an England Lions tour of Australia after being caught drinking too late into the night. Andy Flower was one of the personnel involved in taking the tough decision, and he even had a few tough things to say to the youngster. Bottle bottle bang.
— Ben Stokes (@benstokes38) June 8, 2023
Not that he needed just a solitary chat with the psychologist. In March 2014, the frustration of a poor tour in West Indies, saw Stokes punching the locker in the dressing room, breaking his hand, forcing him to miss the World T20. More meet-ups with Bawden took place and he was even given a routine when angry: go to the dressing room and pack up your kit-bag. That packing process apparently has helped Stokes in calming down a few times.
Bawden, the psychologist who helped Stokes, likes to classify his sporting subjects in two types: Assassins (thinkers) and Warriors (feelers). He puts Alastair Cook in the former, and Stokes of course falls in the ‘warrior’ category.
More bad things would happen though. We know the backstory: the pub fight that threatened his career, the death of his father, the mental-health struggle, before the light dawned. Stokes would come back from mental-heath break, take over the Test captaincy, and even if McCullum had any doubts about his approach, Stokes didn’t. Even Joe Root, the former captain, would be moved to say that he has never enjoyed cricket as much as he has done under Stokes. The Test captaincy recharge, the 2019 ODI World Cup star, and the T20 World Cup champion, and now the captain anointed by the public as the one trying to save Test cricket.
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— England Cricket (@englandcricket) June 18, 2023
A long while after the spray from Andy Flower, Stokes was walking with his girlfriend Clare – Stokes became a father at the age of 21, and has a son and a daughter – the couple chanced upon Flower in a chat with other coaches. He told Clare that, “I really want to tell him, I told you so, I did have it in me.” Clare restrained him, saying Flower must have used it to motivate him and not to disparage, and Stokes knew she, and Flower, were indeed right.
There was an insight from the psychologist Mark Bowden that now seems to have filtered into Stokes’s psyche.
“One thing I try and do is de-myth confidence for people, who often think that confidence is having absolutely no doubt and unbreakable self-belief. In normal life, everybody experiences fear, anxiety and self-doubt,” Bawden once said. “My job is helping people realise that confidence isn’t the absence of fear or doubt, it’s trust in your method.”
SIX catchers in and the plan works
Khawaja gone for 141.
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) June 18, 2023
It’s an observation that Stokes paraphrased in his piece ahead of the Ashes at Players Tribune. He urged the commentators not to say ‘that’s a bad shot’, and explained his rationale.
“It’s only ever a bad shot ‘cause it was out. Worrying about making mistakes or having a fear of getting out creates a negative mindset. It breeds that bit of fear. As a player it can make you second-guess your instincts, if you think you’re gonna get pulled up on it just because what you tried happened not to come off in that one moment for whatever reason,” Stokes wrote.
We saw that in the first ball of the ashes when Zak Crawley belted the cover of the cherry. We saw that in his surprise declaration, that now (after Australia’s reply) has some in the English press hand-wring; Stokes isn’t going to care for now. It’s visible in his field-sets.
“We want to create an environment where everyone has the freedom to try things without fear. I know it hasn’t always been that way, even though we’ve always had the ability.” Stokes then addressed the fans: “I promise you: We’re going to play without fear. We’re going to hold nothing back. And we’re going to make some memories.
Hopefully, the result is that we take the urn back, but the most important thing is that — whatever happens — you will be entertained.”
It rings of the famous retirement statement from Brian Charles Lara: “Did I entertain you?” Lara would throw a rhetorical question at the fans. Now, Stokes doesn’t even have to reach out for rhetoric. He is just keeping his promise.