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Ben Stokes – “I said if we do the film, I want it all in there

by Stewart Cole

This week marks its release Ben Stokes: Phoenix From The Ashesa documentary about England’s talismanic captain, charting the peaks and troughs of one of the world’s most talked-about cricketers.

As with athletes of this ilk, the line between on and off the field blurs, which lends itself to as honest a final product as you’d expect. For every neat behind-the-scenes snippet that keeps projects like these going, there are moments where the all-rounder refers to the turmoil he’s experienced throughout his career. The 2017 Bristol road race takes on a bit of a stake in running time, and rightly so. Much of what has come of it – the lost Ashes in 2017-18, the comeback, the glory of 2019 and his mental health break in 2021 – are all connected in some way to that fateful night in September.

The most revealing aspects of the film are around these periods. Stokes talks about a series of panic attacks – in a Nottingham hotel, the dry cleaners and a children’s birthday party – which confirmed to him that something was wrong, prompting him to seek professional help and anti-anxiety medication. Both remain so, something he talked about when he took over at the start of the summer. And his level of mistrust of managers – “suits” as he puts it – stemming from a lack of support during the Bristol controversy, is a caveat he still maintains. As revealed in the film, when one of those ‘suits’, who remains unnamed, asked him for a selfie after winning the 2019 World Cup at Lord’s, Stokes told him to ‘block’.

This may be the highlight of the film. Everything that has happened in Stokes’ career and life has taken a toll on him and he is not shy about admitting how much the tough times have shaped who and what he is today. The most tragic of these was the death of his father in 2020, which he is still coming to terms with.

Ahead of the film’s release, Stokes spoke about how the film came about, how he hopes it will be received, and what it’s like to present his rough and tumble life on his terms.

What were your thoughts when you first saw the film?
When I woke up in the morning knowing that I was going to see the first part of the film, I was a little anxious, a little nervous. Because obviously I knew I had done it, but I didn’t know what it would all look like when assembled. All the film pieces, all these things they were going to do to make it look like an hour and a half long interview or whatever.

I remember when it was over, me and Claire [his wife], we just sat there for 15 seconds in silence. I was like, “Wow.” I was surprised by this. It was very strange watching something that was about me, but as I’ve told a few people, it was like watching something about someone I didn’t know, even though it was me.

Did the film feel cathartic in some way? For the things you are talking about, I believe this will be the first time the rest of us will have insight into it all. Those moments when you and Sam Mendes talk – from the outside it looks a little like therapy.
I wouldn’t say it was. Before we even started shooting this whole thing, we had a few meetings with Sam and the Whisper team [the production company]. I said if we do this, I want to make sure this is very authentic, almost like realistic. I don’t want it to be a PR thing like, “Right, let’s do it all good and clean and right and all for the good stuff.” I said, if we do, I want it all in there. I want it to be seen as an account of all the good and not-so-good things that have been done – obviously publicly known, but in more detail. They were very happy after I explained that because that’s exactly what they wanted to be and the direction they saw it going.

So much of your story is clinging to the people you love the most and protecting them. I feel like it must have been a challenge to do something like that – to be as open as you were. There was a powerful moment when your mom was having a conversation the story that was in Sun. It would take a lot for her and you to talk.

I guess a great way to explain everything is, I felt like I could talk a lot more about certain things and it was almost a way to show that just because something is over doesn’t mean it’s over. My wife explained the Bristol thing very well: once the trial was over and the verdict was out, people could assume that would be the end of it. But that was the end of one part and the beginning of something else to do with it.

Coming back to these things about Sun, you think how long ago this happened, then it appeared again. These things will always have some kind of effect on people’s lives, no matter how long the road. It will always have a long-lasting effect on human situations.

Even Bristol, again, for me, was a long time ago, but there will still be long-lasting effects from it. My kids are getting older now, I’m going to have to sit down with them one day and explain the whole situation to them, because what we don’t want to happen is other people ask them about it and they’re like, “What are you doing? I don’t know what you mean.”

“What people don’t get to see is me, where I grew up in Cockermouth with my friends, or when I’m at home with my kids or when I’m not ‘Ben Stokes the cricketer’.”

You are one of the most talked about, written about cricketers in the world right now. Did it somehow feel like you were driving the story on your own terms?
Yes. Let’s just say that if other people have the opportunity to do something like this, I would really encourage them to be as open and honest as possible, because it’s a real opportunity for you to be yourself and show people that you’re not just who you are. People will have an idea of ​​what I am because of how I am on the cricket field or how I am in a press conference. But this is a very small part of me that you see. What people can’t see is me, where I grew up in Cockermouth with my friends or when I’m at home with my kids or when I’m not ‘Ben Stokes the cricketer’.

That was really cool for me to be able to do. Without a script, I’m not told “be more optimistic” or “We actually didn’t like the way it came out, can we do it again but execute it differently?” It was just, “No, just be you, that’s what we want.” It was something I really enjoyed as I was given the freedom to do.

It was fascinating to hear stories about your dad. From the outside he seemed to have this superhero quality about him. That “my dad is harder than your dad” schoolyard argument – I feel like you’d win that debate ten times out of ten. Your relationship really shows in the movie. It must have been special to be able to give people a snapshot of the kind of person he was and the influence he had on you.
Yes, I guess. I’m sure people will see that, even those who have known me for a long time, and understand more about the way I am because of how I am with my dad. They moved back to New Zealand when I was 21, so it’s not really a case where other people can go, “Oh, I can totally understand why that is” when you meet their parents. It’ll be interesting to see if, after watching it, people might say, “Actually, I can totally see why Ben is who he is because of how he talks about his dad or what his dad was like when he played sports “.

When I was watching the movie back for the first time – and I’ve only watched the first part – I really liked how the family stuff at home with mom and dad came to light. It was quite genuine. You probably understand why I am the way I am.

When you talked about Bristol, you talked about being disappointed by the ‘suits’. There’s an anonymous outfit that asked you for a selfie after the World Cup final. He probably remains anonymous?
Yes.

You touched on the requirements for players in the ODI withdrawal statement. Many of them are run by people in suits. Do you think the current game has too much costume influence and not enough player influence? He felt that in your statement, you were taking a stand.

The word I chose to use [in the film] it was “costumes” because I just feel like it was a general way to explain someone without going into detail about who they were. This was not a reflection of the people wearing suits! (laughs)

I would say the only thing about the way cricket is at the moment with the schedule is that we have to look at it a bit more logically. The three forms must remain. I’m not one to say that we have to get rid of one in order for the other two to be viable or successful. I’m saying that the program needs to be looked at so that all three formats are viable for people who want to play all three. Right now, this is not sustainable.

I feel like when people look at the schedule now, they’re looking so far to see, “When can I take a break? What series do I have to miss? Which series isn’t that important?” Every series should be important when you play for your country. But overlapping rows? Like we had one Test series and one day series going simultaneously. To me, that’s just crazy.

Every series, every game you play for your country, is just as important when you think about it. Obviously this is not the case because some series are longer than others, e.g. the Ashes playing New Zealand. But you still want to play because you are playing for your country. Unfortunately, because the way things are now, you have to look at the schedule and go, where can I take a break, because I can’t do it over and over again because I want to play as long as I can.

Is management something you could consider at the end of your career because it needs people with sympathy for the players?
No.

Not at all?
You won’t see me there unless they change the dress code to “smart casual”.

You don’t have to wear a suit if you don’t want to…
No, I can’t see myself doing that in the future. You never know, I might be eating those words in a few years. But honestly, no, I have no ambition to do that.

Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes is out on Prime Video on Friday

Vithushan Ehantharajah is Associate Editor for ESPNcricinfo

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