Ben Stokes is a household name. Although he has been responsible for some of the most dramatic moments in English cricketing history, perhaps this is his most poignant yet. On Friday evening, the ECB announced that Stokes was taking a break from cricket to prioritise his mental well-being.
Pandemic life has become the norm with the constant yo-yo of restrictions in England. Yet in the last 18 months, the England players have spent a large amount of that time, on tour, away from their families with few home comforts on their long, sterile journeys across the globe. Yes, we can retort that professional athletes have it good. And yes, most professional athletes get paid handsomely for their trade but the impact of the pandemic and the long spells away from loved ones must take their toll.
And what could be more important, really, than your mental health? For many of us, the last 18 months have served as a wake up call, priorities have been reevaluated and life choices made for the future. Mind report that 1 in 4 of the population will suffer a mental health problem in their lifetime. I suggest that figure may be a little higher in reality, such is the stigma of discussing mental health in society at large and because of the incessant pressure we have all faced during the pandemic.
After all, what does it mean to be strong? Is it that you never admit to your struggles or admit that they exist and face them head on? Strength is not the absence of the challenge but shown the way that the challenge is faced. Acknowledging that you need to step away to recharge and come again is one of the bravest things you can do.
If that last paragraph made you bristle, consider the reaction to Simone Biles’ struggles at the Olympics. Whilst the vast majority were supportive of her decision to withdraw from the team event, a small minority of prominent figures took aim, calling Biles ‘too soft’. The narrative needs to change. Mental health is not an issue to be judged on whether you like the person who is suffering or not. I hope that Stokes’ candidness about his own mental health signals a shift away from such a polarised viewpoint.
Since the glorious summer of 2019, Stokes has suffered with persistent niggles and has been hampered even when he has taken to the field. His test batting average increased in 2020 and whilst he bowled less, his overs were more potent in reflection of his role as a game changer. But, statistics alone tell half the story. Stokes has been a constant in an inexperienced and ever changing dressing room. He has shouldered the burden posed by a flaky batting line-up which has crumbled around Root and Stokes all too often. Since March 2020, he has performed from within England’s bio-secure bubble and whilst the ECB have made efforts to protect players mental health, a break from the bubble itself is the only real rest bite that they can get.
A team should not break apart at the seams without one individual, alas this England team does just that. You will doubtless read many column inches about The Hundred. But, for all the hype, as I write this England have crumbled to a desperate 183 all out on Day 1 of the first test against India. In Stokes’ absence, nobody stepped into the void. Chaos ensued. Four batsmen were out for nought, three of those are recognised batsmen. No amount of thrashing the ball to the boundary could save England here. The brilliance of The Hundred is not transferable to test match cricket. The Hundred may be popular but, for test cricket at least, it will not be productive.
England’s batting woes pale into insignificance here, though. No matter how dire England are in Stokes’ absence, I hope he is able to take time for himself in the next few months and comes back fresh in time for The Ashes.
Stokes has given so much to English cricket, it is only right that he takes time for himself so that he can perform at his brilliant best once more.
Come back when you are ready, Ben, on the field or off it, we’re behind you all the way.