MIKE BREARLEY on how Ben Stokes has banished the fear of failure

Pope is allowed to reverse-sweep a spinner first ball… in my day he wouldn’t have played again for three years! Legendary former England and Ashes-winning captain MIKE BREARLEY on how Ben Stokes has banished the fear of failure

  • Former batter Mike Brearley is one of England’s greatest Test captains of all-time
  • Brearley was a shrewd leader, captaining England to victory in the 1981 Ashes 
  • He spoke to Mail Sport about Ben Stokes and his transformation of the Test side

Sitting in his book-lined study in Chalk Farm, north London, Mike Brearley pauses as he considers the transformation of Ben Stokes’s Test team. ‘I’m astonished that it could happen so dramatically and so quickly,’ he says. ‘I’m full of admiration for him.’

Brearley is 81, a number that seems to follow him around: 1981 was the summer he replaced Ian Botham as England captain after two Tests against Australia, with results that still reverberate today. Now, as appetites are whetted for the latest Ashes chapter, it is Stokes who is performing the miracles — with Brearley a fascinated onlooker.

Can England beat Australia this summer? ‘Well, I hope so,’ he says. ‘They might well. There’s a lot of luck in these things, in the shortish run, as there is in anything. Talking of luck, 1981 was the most lucky of all. That’s just a fact of life.’ You sense the modesty isn’t fake.

Brearley, who won 18 of his 31 Tests as captain and lost only four, could hardly be a more different beast from Stokes, who has so far won 10 and lost three. As Brearley recounts in his new memoir, Turning Over the Pebbles, he would scribble Shakespearean sonnets on his hand or wrist before going out to field for Middlesex. Stokes prefers tattoos quoting the Canadian rapper Drake.

And yet the two men share an interest in what makes people tick — Brearley is still a practising psychoanalyst — and an understanding that different strokes may be required for different folks.

Legendary former England captain Mike Brearley spoke to Mail Sport about how Ben Stokes has transformed England’s Test team and banished the fear of failure in his side 

Brearley won 18 of his 31 Tests as captain, but is an extremely different character to Stokes

‘It’s the old thing about telling Ian Botham he’s an old camel and he’ll bristle up and bowl faster,’ he says. ‘If you told Bob Willis that, he’d half-believe it.’

Brearley can see Stokes has applied his own version of man-management to his team-mates. ‘What he seems to have done is release people to be freer to be themselves, in a relatively optimistic way, along the lines that Brendon McCullum has talked about — joining the boy or girl you were when you first started playing. You did it for love.

‘The second thing he’s done is make people less worried about losing. In fact, he’s almost defying anyone to ever concern himself with losing at all.

‘The third thing is, he’s won people round. He was asked how things had changed. The first thing he said was: Jimmy and Broady have come on board. And that’s been a big change, too.

‘I’ve always felt they wanted to stop people scoring runs rather than take wickets. They could have been even greater if they’d had just that little bit more edge of wanting to take wickets instead of worrying quite so much about run-rate. What Stokes has done is vital.’

But Brearley has doubts, too — ‘caveats’, he calls them. For all the success of England’s positive batting, he suggests: ‘You’ve also got to be able to be cautious, to reflect on your own performance. I hope it doesn’t mean there will never be another Boycott opening the batting for England, or another Cook.’

He is also sceptical about Stokes’s disdain for draws, an attitude that has led him to insist he would have no problem declaring on the last day of the Ashes even if England were ahead in the series.

‘One of the great things about long cricket is there is a possibility of a draw if you can’t win,’ says Brearley. ‘I agree with him that you should go as hard as you can to win. But if you can’t, and if it’s too loaded against you, then it’s honourable to play for a draw. Mike Atherton (at Johannesburg in 1995-96), Watson and Bailey (at Lord’s in 1953) – these are iconic moments in our history. Even Panesar and Anderson at Cardiff (in 2009). Those are heroic and implausible things that took a great deal of guts, courage, perseverance, a certain sort of confidence in oneself. So I don’t agree with him about never playing for a draw.’

But Brearley is not dogmatic in his opposition, and recalls Stokes’s bold declaration at tea on the fourth day in Rawalpindi, where he dangled Pakistan a carrot of 343 in four sessions.

‘I admire the fact that after four days of Test cricket, when you’ve bowled twice as many overs as the opposition, and you’ve all been sick at the beginning of the Test — to then risk losing… you see, we wouldn’t have done that, I don’t think. We’d have made sure we weren’t going to lose before we started to try to win.’

He wonders, too, if Stokes is in danger of selling himself short with the bat in his desire to set a positive example to team-mates. His words contain a glimpse of the psychoanalyst within.

Brearley (right) led England in the 1981 Ashes – a series better-known as ‘Botham’s (left) Ashes’

He joked that if Ollie Pope reverse-swept his first ball in his era, he would be instantly dropped

‘I think with his father’s death and his court case and probably other things, he’d become depressed,’ says Brearley. ‘Well, he said he had. I wondered if it was a sort of new lease of life which has a very slightly manic quality to it. I’m not saying he’s bipolar or manic, but I’m saying there’s a trace of it. It’s slightly gung-ho. But the important point is it is only a game, and it’s one game at a time.’

Above all, Brearley is still trying to process the many vignettes that have made the first year of Bazball feel so remarkable. Brearley picks out a moment that confirms in his mind how forgiving an environment Stokes must have created, one which allows the players to take what would once have been considered risks.

‘How else could an England No 3 go into bat in a Test match on a spinning pitch against a bowler they haven’t seen, and his first ball he plays a reverse sweep?’ he asks, referring to Ollie Pope taking on Pakistan’s mystery spinner Abrar Ahmed at Multan.

‘He could just as easily have got out. If he’d done that almost any time in the previous 50 or 100 years, he’d probably not have played again for three years. He convinced him he had to do whatever struck him as best. It was crazy, but I’m impressed.’

Does Brearley see echoes of his own man-management in Stokes? ‘I don’t think I did it as well as him,’ he says. ‘Maybe I did with others. I was a very cautious batsman, and I needed to be uninhibited a bit. I wish I’d done a bit better at Test level, and could have been a bit better if I hadn’t been inhibited by it. So someone like him or McCullum might have helped me.’

Imagine Brearley swapping notes with McCullum, or even Brearley captaining Stokes — the mind boggles, as it has for much of the last 12 months.

Turning Over the Pebbles — A Life in Cricket and the Mind, by Mike Brearley, is published on Thursday by Constable.

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