The appointment of Ben Stokes as the England men’s Test captain was always going to generate a little heat. The patient may be sickly. The team – and indeed Test cricket itself, which has been dying since the day it was born – may be twitching on its gurney, breath coming in a rasp. But for now this feels like a shot of adrenaline to the chest.
The optics are good. The captaincy adjectives are bracing and terse. Sports writers already love Stokes because he makes that stage feel epic. Broadcasters have a tendency to turn husky and brave in his presence. And on a basic level Stokes is just such a likable, moreish figure.
Here is a cricketer who seems completely immersed, who can transform that baroque old dance of batting, bowling and fielding into something entirely his own, an expression of his own will, his own physicality. Shove him out in front of the cameras and he speaks like an authentic human being. He even looks impressively heroic these days, chin jutting, hair swept back in twin ginger wings, the hair of a handsome Victorian lifeboat captain.
There is pleasure, then, in Stokes’s appointment, and excitement at what comes next. Not to mention a quality that has been obscured a little by the depressive state of the late Joe Root years, the conviction that the job itself is toxic, that all is ruined, that the best thing would be to shut the curtains and wait for the end.
In reality Stokes is both an excellent appointment and a very interesting one. Nothing is guaranteed. England are still terrible at Test cricket. The captain is 30 years old and reckless with his own fitness. But this is a very hopeful fit.
Stokes will now face the usual two-phase process. The first task of an England captain is to fix the team. The second is, as ever, to fix English cricket, which is, as previously stated, always dying, but is doing so a little quicker right now. This is just built into the office, a strange Arthurian quality, the sense of something to be preserved and rediscovered, returned to a state of mythical grace.
Which is, to be fair, probably one for the longer term. More immediately there are plenty of details Stokes can set about. Selections have been strange. Pressure in the field has been flaccid, bowling tactics muddled. The exclusions of Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson can be fixed. Both should be back in, not to be wheeled around in their bathchairs like heritage exhibits, but asked to perform to a high level and volume without concession to their age, until they either pack it in or their levels drop. Or in other words, as though this is sport you want to win.
The batting looks spooked but still capable of more. It might not be overly technical, but some different energy, whatever the opposite is of Eoin Morgan’s vibes-based effect on the white-ball team would be a major uplift.
Plus there are the wider elements. The role of red-ball captain now is to lobby, to insist on space, time and resources. Root was biddable. Stokes is more demanding. And this is the real key here.
The one thing this role really needs now is advocacy. Stokes needs to act as an evangelist for Test cricket. This is his mission, one he is better qualified than anyone else to carry out, simply by following his nose and playing the game.
It is necessary at this point to acknowledge that the role of England cricket captain is massively overstated, not just in its reach, but in is significance to the nation at large. The great lost summer game has spent the last quarter century shrinking back, walled up in its private garden beyond the city limits. To the majority of the population this must all sound a bit like hearing people talk about the royal family as though it actually matters and suddenly you have to remember who the duchess of Wessex is. Is this irretrievable? Is there any way of reversing that process just a little?
The fact is nobody has really tried to sell or promote or embolden Test cricket. There is no energy source here, no impresario, no towering figure. Stokes is English cricket’s first celebrity Test captain since Andrew Flintoff. He’s the first Test captain with crossover vibes, the first Test captain who is massive on Instagram.
This will sound deeply inane to the legacy fan. But it would be foolish to overlook the power of reach, eyeballs and celebrity wattage. How does football manage to dominate every surface from behind its paywall? What is the Hundred for? Stokes has more Twitter followers than the ECB. And no one else out there is willing or able to sell this game like the new skipper, who also loves Test cricket, and who sees it as something worth saving.
Another thing about Stokes, he’s an outlier, a state school-educated England Test captain, maybe even the last of the line. And whether by accident or design, he connects. People adore him. He doesn’t look like he’s part of an exclusive club, or like he’s going to ask you to stay off the lawn. To watch him is not only to feel entertained, but to get the game, to feel its theatre and its tensions.
There has been some talk about the demands all this will place on Stokes, as though he might simply be too busy to be England Test captain. But maybe all the other things he’s been doing aren’t as important.
This is what is left for him after the World Cup, the franchise fortune, the ICC gongs. Stokes has looked for a while like someone searching for another battle. Test cricket is his mission. There are no saviours, no magic cures, no deathbed miracles. But it will be eventful. And we do at least have something that feels like a pulse.