He’s the cricketing sensation responsible for lighting up England’s summer with not one, but two of the most heroic performances in the history of sport.
But swashbuckling Ben Stokes, who has almost single-handedly dragged his side over the line in both a World Cup final and perhaps the most gripping Ashes Test match ever, hasn’t always been such a national treasure.
In a career that began when he was still an unruly teenager, the 28-year-old all-rounder has repeatedly tested the patience of his club, his country, and perhaps most of all his wife Clare.
Victory: Ben Stokes roars in celebration after hitting the winning runs to seal an incredible comeback victory over Australia in the third Ashes Test at Leeds
They have all been forced to help pick up the pieces from the on and off field indiscretions that have landed him in cells, criminal courts, and seen him sent home from International tours.
That Stokes has repeatedly bounced back is, perhaps, his greatest achievement, not to mention a feather in the cap of England’s cricketing authorities, who have handled his mercurial talent wisely and arguably helped forge his resilience.
We all make mistakes. But as his remarkable achievements show, it’s how you respond to them that really counts . . .
Kiwi rugby legends
Six foot tall, and naturally athletic, Stokes hails from a long line of Kiwi rugby legends.
Great-grandfather Jim, was mayor of Greymouth, a town on New Zealand’s South Island, who became a prominent match official in the 1950s and 60s. The cricketer’s paternal grandfather, who was also named Jim, played in several club sides which won a host of national tournaments in the post-war era.
His father, Gerard, carved out a career in the amateur era by converting to rugby league.
A prop forward, he won a cap playing for the national side in 1982.
Starting early: Stokes wields a bat as a youngster. By the time he was 11, Ben had captained New Zealand’s South Island at rugby league, and represented Wellington at rugby union
Famously tough, Stokes Snr once played half a season with a constantly dislocated middle finger, taping it up to get through matches. He ultimately decided to have it amputated rather than operated on, because he couldn’t afford medical bills, but was back training within a week.
Ben — who grew up believing his Dad’s finger had been bitten off by a crocodile — also boasts a sporty mother: Deborah Stokes was a keen amateur cricketer, even during pregnancy.
‘She was still playing right up to carrying Ben,’ Gerard has recalled. ‘I’m sure that’s why he came out as an all-rounder, as she was as well.’
‘Built like Popeye’
The first big hits of Ben’s cricket career came during infancy.
‘Deb and I can remember him running around, still in nappies, with a cricket bat,’ Gerard recalled. ‘He was able to straight drive the ball down the hallway without a problem and pulling the nappies up as he ran. He just seemed to be a natural.’
Deborah’s job, counselling victims of violent crime, frequently took her away from home, meaning Ben, who was born in 1991, spent much of his early childhood with his father, who was by then retired from rugby league and working as a professional coach.
In a class of his own: Stokes, top right, is pictured with his team-mates in Year 11 at Cockermouth School in Cumbria in 2007
Perhaps as a result, a hefty portion of his early sporting success came in the oval-ball game. By the time he was 11, Ben had captained New Zealand’s South Island at rugby league, and represented Wellington at rugby union.
As a cricketer he was also displaying extraordinary talent, representing his national side.
‘He could bat anywhere, open the bowling and in the field he would dive away, stop the ball and then throw the stumps down,’ says the side’s coach Andy Cameron, who has recalled Stokes being ‘built like Popeye,’ and also ferociously competitive.
When Ben was 12, his family moved to Cumbria after Gerard was appointed coach at Workington, a rugby league club he’d played at in the early 1980s.
Ben quickly started making his mark at Cockermouth, the local cricket club.
‘My first memories of Ben were when he came to the nets as a 12-year-old,’ coach, John Grainger, has recalled. ‘He’d stay right until the end, when it was getting very dark, and I’d put the headlights of my car on so he could play a little longer.’ Stokes was soon able to hit balls out of the ground. But his reputation as a hothead was also soon established: at 13 he broke his hand punching a fire door in frustration and anger after getting out.
At the time, he was still playing rugby league, representing the North of England.
Stokes is pictured with his wife Clare. She supported him throughout his trial and celebrated on the Lord’s outfield with him after he helped England win the Cricket World Cup
But that stopped after he was selected for England cricket’s under-15 winter development squad, only to turn up in Loughborough on a pair of crutches, after sustaining an injury in an on-field collision.
‘It was a bit tense,’ was how his then coach remembers a meeting with the physiotherapist. ‘I think that was the end of his competitive rugby career.’
Despite ongoing anger-management issues, Stokes represented England at Under-15 and Under-16.
After leaving school at 16, with GCSEs in PE and design and technology, he joined the academy team of his county side, Durham.
Turned pro at just 17
Stokes was called into Durham’s first team in 2009 on the morning of a one-day match against Surrey. He was brought on to bowl with England batsman, Mark Ramprakash, unbeaten on 36.
The home side had lost just two wickets, and required less than 100 runs for victory, only for the untried debutant to strike with his third delivery.
‘He tried to hit it for six over mid-wicket, but I managed to hit his stumps,’ Stokes told reporters.
‘I remember thinking ‘I got Mark Ramprakash out . . . ‘ It took a bit to sink in.’ Stokes ended his five-over spell with two wickets for 22 runs, helping Durham to complete an unlikely victory.
Too many late nights?
Like many a young sports star, Stokes began to show an unfortunate knack of generating headlines off the field as well as on it.
Warning signs first emerged during 2011, when he was fined and censured by Durham after he received a police caution for obstructing an officer making an arrest during a night out in Newcastle.
‘I woke in the morning and was given my breakfast through the meal flap in the door,’ was how he recalled his night in the cells.
Stokes’s career was nearly derailed by a brawl outside a Bristol nightclub (seen left, with Stokes in the green shirt) in 2017. The right-hand picture shows Stokes after his arrest. He was found not guilty of affray last year
‘It was like a scene from The Shawshank Redemption.’
By February 2013, Stokes was a regular in the England one-day side. But his prospects of making the Test team suffered a serious knock after he was sent home from an England Lions tour of Australia with team-mate Matt Coles, for repeatedly flouting rules about drinking.
Coach Andy Flower told him: ‘You don’t want to play for England. You just want to p**s it up the wall with your mates.’ Stokes purportedly replied: ‘I’ll prove you wrong.’
Sparkling Ashes debut
True to his word, Stokes knuckled down, enjoyed a sparkling season for Durham and returned to Australia nine months after he was sent home, as part of England’s Ashes team.
Although his team suffered a humiliating 5-0 defeat, he earned respect with a maiden Test century, scoring 120 at Perth.
Sadly, an injury and run of poor form saw him spend the ensuing 18 months in and out of the national side. But he returned to his best in 2015 scoring a century against New Zealand at Lord’s.
Stokes, right, collides with Australian fast bowler Mitchell Johnson in the second Test of the 2013/14 Ashes series at Adelaide. England lost the series 5-0
The achievement met with mixed feelings for his parents, who by then had returned to the country of his birth. ‘It’s a strange one,’ dad Gerard declared. ‘I’ve always said I’ll support Ben in every team he plays, but when he’s playing New Zealand he understands that we’ll support New Zealand.’ Gerard and Deborah’s patriotism was, of course, to be far more sorely tested earlier this summer, when their son’s heroics propelled England to the now famous victory against New Zealand in the World Cup final.
An extraordinary 258 against South Africa, the fastest double century ever scored by an England batsman, had by 2016 confirmed the status of Stokes as England’s most dangerous batsman.
But his temper seemed as explosive as his shot-making.
In 2014, he’d missed the World 20/20 cup due to a hand injury, after punching a dressing room locker after being dismissed during a warm-up game.
That led to several sessions with England’s team psychologist Mark Bawden, who devised a plan where the first thing he had to do after being dismissed was to pack his kit bag to give him time to cool off.
He then became involved in a silly but long-running feud with West Indies batsman Marlon Samuels, who saluted him in a mocking fashion after he was dismissed cheaply.
More booze issues
Stokes in 2016 told an interviewer that his favourite tipple was Jagerbombs (a mixture of Red Bull and the liqueur Jagermeister). When asked how many he could sink on a night out said: ‘I’ve lost count after 20.’
Those comments came back to haunt him the following summer, when he was caught out at 3am in Manchester bar, Crazy Pedro’s, hours before the second day of the Test match against South Africa. Asked about his nocturnal habits in an interview in September 2017 he happily admitted drinking during five-day Test matches, saying: ‘Why not? We’re grown men, go out for dinner, have a few pints. I’m 26, not 14. I don’t have to drink Diet Coke with dinner.’
A few days after making those comments, Stokes was charged with affray after being videoed brawling with two men outside a Bristol nightclub while on England duty.
His children are superheroes too: Ben and Clare’s two children Layton and Libby. They live in a five-bedroom mansion in County Durham
When the case came to court, he denied being drunk (but admitted to having consumed six vodkas) and argued that he’d been coming to the aid of two gay men who were being subjected to homophobic abuse.
The jury agreed and in August 2018 acquitted him.
An England disciplinary panel subsequently found Stokes guilty of bringing the game into disrepute, fined him £30,000 and suspended him for eight games, which had by then already been served.
His reputation wasn’t helped, during the extended kerfuffle, by the emergence of a social media video showing Stokes mocking the disabled son of glamour model Katie Price — for which he offered a second grovelling apology.
Tattoo for his family
Stokes credits wife Clare with returning him to the straight and narrow — and allowing this Summer’s heroics.
The couple met in Manchester in 2010 when he was a 19-year-old county cricketer and she was at university studying to be a teacher.
They got engaged in 2013, the year first child Layton was born, and were married four years later.
Stokes, whose career earnings have been estimated at nearly £10 million, pays tribute to his family by way of a tattoo, covering a large portion of his back
Although the ceremony, which was attended by Alastair Cook, Joe Root, and several England team-mates, took place while the groom was still under police investigation for the Bristol nightclub fracas, Stokes has recalled: ‘Getting married was one of the greatest days I’ve ever had. We got married at Clare’s local village church, near Weston-super-Mare, where she had grown up.’
The couple, who also have a daughter called Libby, live in a five-bedroom house in County Durham, which they bought from former Sunderland footballer (and convicted paedophile) Adam Johnson for £1.7million.
Stokes, whose career earnings have been estimated at nearly £10 million, pays tribute to his family by way of a tattoo, covering a large portion of his back.
‘It represents my family; two cubs with a lioness and a lion,’ he has said. ‘My wife is a ‘lioness’. She really looks after the kids when I am away and has put her career on hold for it.’
On his bowling arm, he meanwhile boasts an image of a phoenix rising from the ashes.
‘Obviously, the symbolism with the phoenix is that if it gets put down, it gets back up and comes back stronger,’ he has said.
Given the events of recent days and weeks, it seems entirely appropriate.