23 August 2022

Ben Stokes documentary shows how close he came to quitting cricket

23 August 2022

Ben Stokes believes the public will see a different side to him in a new documentary where he comes face to face with “mental breakdown” and is driven to the brink of abandoning the career that made him a star.

The England Test captain attended a preview screening of ‘Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes’ in London on Monday, four days before it drops for the wider public on Prime Video.

By the time it hits the streaming service he will be fully focused on the red ball rather than the red carpet, leading his side’s charge against South Africa at Old Trafford, but the film makes it clear how close he came to walking away.

While there are stirring sequences from his golden summer of 2019, when he steered England to World Cup glory at Lord’s and conjured an all-time Ashes classic at Headingley, the narrative is shaped by crisis and trauma.

Stokes confronts some dark times in the new film (Prime Video/handout)

Stokes confronts his 2017 arrest in Bristol, the subsequent trial and eventual acquittal on charges of affray more fully than ever before, openly resentful about a lack of support from some in the England hierarchy and pondering if he was “playing for the wrong people”. He also offers a touching front-row seat to his final days with father Ged, who died in 2020 of brain cancer during the course of filming

When Stokes began to struggle with anxiety and panic attacks, ultimately stepping away from the sport to prioritise his mental health, production might easily have halted entirely. But instead, the cameras keep rolling and he appears, looking gaunt and fretful, during a stark interview segment with Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes.

“People might have an opinion on me from watching me on a cricket field, or from press conferences, but they won’t know what I am away from that. They will walk away knowing a lot more about me,” he told the PA news agency.

There wasn't a script written that said '18 months in we're going to have Ben have a mental breakdown and take time out of the game'. I wanted it to be genuine, to be me.

“I made a real effort, I wanted it to be genuine, to be me. This wasn’t about me saying ‘I’ve got a documentary on Amazon, check me out’. I didn’t want it be any bull**** ‘PR’ stuff .

“At no point did I ever want it to be set up to look good. There wasn’t a script written that said ’18 months in we’re going to have Ben have a mental breakdown and take time out of the game’. But now I look at that and it was really important that I gave as much as I possibly could in that period of my life and put it into the film.

“I wouldn’t say this is a documentary about cricket. It’s about my life, stuff I’ve gone through, stuff I’ve had to overcome. What this does is opens me up a lot more than people expect to see on the hard times that everyone goes through.

“I think it will help people. If it helps one person, I’ll be very proud. I decided to do this, to show it to the world and I’m proud of the stuff I’ve managed to open up and talk about.”

Stokes (right) was struck by a comment from Stuart Broad (left) in the film (Jason O’Brien/PA) (PA Archive)

England team-mate Stuart Broad is one of several notable contributors, at one stage pointing to the elephant in the room: That Stokes’ hiatus last summer felt at one stage like a permanent one.

“I think one of hardest hitting things watching it back the first time was the two-second clip when Broady said that could be me never playing again,” said Stokes.

“I spoke to him a lot when I was out of the game but just chit-chat, nothing to do with how I was feeling or about cricket. Personally, I was at a stage where I was like ‘nah, I’m not going to play again. I don’t have it in me’. But for one of the closest friends to feel like that just from talking to me? Watching him say that took me back a bit. I didn’t realise it was that bad.”

In a memorably frank moment, Stokes makes a veiled reference to an unnamed ‘suit’ whose behaviour during the Bristol affair left him pondering his future with England. He later recalls offering the same person a brief and colourful response when they sought to share in his World Cup triumph.

Given his current status as Test skipper, it would not have been a shock had that sequence hit the cutting room floor. Instead, it lingers as a reminder that Stokes will continue to speak his mind.

“That bit is… interesting. I’m surprised it’s still in there, but I’m glad it’s in there,” he said.

“Suit is just a word I used. I’ve not thrown any names or anyone under the bus, it’s not what I’m about. I would never name and shame someone, it’s just pointless. But the person, if they watch, knows exactly who I’m on about.”

:: Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes launches on Prime Video on Friday 26th August

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