Kevin Pietersen and Gary Lineker are among the sporting figures to show support for Ben Stokes after the England all-rounder decided to take an indefinite break from cricket with immediate effect “to prioritise his mental wellbeing”.
The England and Wales Cricket Board announced on Friday evening that Stokes will play no part in the forthcoming Test series against India. As well as stepping back for the sake of his mental wellbeing, the 30-year-old is also seeking to rest his injured left index finger, which has not fully healed since his return to competitive cricket.
“Ben has shown tremendous courage to open up about his feelings,” said the managing director of England men’s cricket, Ashley Giles, in a statement. “Our primary focus has always been and will continue to be the mental health and welfare of all of our people. The demands on our athletes to prepare and play elite sport are relentless in a typical environment but the ongoing pandemic has acutely compounded this.
“Spending significant amounts of time away from family, with minimal freedoms, is extremely challenging. The cumulative effect of operating almost continuously in these environments has had a major impact on everyone. Ben will be given as long as he needs and we look forward to seeing him playing cricket for England in the future.”
As well as coping with life in bio-secure bubbles during the past 16 months – which he has done with the Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League as well as with England’s Test and limited-overs squads – Stokes has also had to deal with the death of his father Ged in December after he had suffered from brain cancer during the final year of his life.
Stokes has thrown himself into cricket this summer, featuring for Durham in the T20 Blast and for Northern Superchargers in the Hundred, as well as this month captaining a makeshift England side to a 3-0 one-day series victory over Pakistan after the first-choice squad had to go into isolation.
It has been a full-on schedule and Stokes has ultimately decided to take a total break. He will be replaced in the squad that takes on India by Somerset’s Craig Overton. The first Test begins at Trent Bridge on Wednesday.
“It was quite interesting because when he [Stokes] got asked a question about his finger the other night, his response was not your normal response … it was like there was something more,” said former England batsman Pietersen. “I hope he’s OK – he’s a fabulous cricketer, one of the best in the world at the moment.”
Writing on Twitter, Lineker, the one-time England striker, said: “Wishing @benstokes38 a speedy recovery. When our sporting heroes are brave and open up about their mental health problems it will help others realise they are not alone with theirs.”
Also writing on Twitter, the former England hooker Brian Moore said: “Best wishes to Ben Stokes. I hope his mental health issues get sorted out as quickly as possible and without criticism.”
There has also been support for Stokes from the former Sri Lanka batsman Kumar Sangakkara. He said: “It must be a very, very tough time for Ben and his family. It won’t be a decision made easily but it brings into focus the level elite players play at – your coping mechanism can only deal with so much. Different individuals deal with things differently. Some are able to cope with it and some aren’t and over time you can reach a point where you need a break. But the fact is he has to be OK. He needs the support of good people around him.”
Stokes is the latest high-profile athlete, following Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, to prioritise mental wellbeing over competition and his decision to do so brings into focus the pressures facing England cricketers, which is somewhat timely given that is to be the subject of key talks between the ECB and Cricket Australia in the coming weeks over whether families will be allowed to accompany the players to the Ashes this winter.
The Australian government has limited the number of overseas arrivals during the pandemic, with thousands of its citizens unable to return and Covid-19 cases surging in the country’s largest cities amid a slow roll-out of the vaccination programme. England’s Test squad, and in particular the players who feature in all formats, could go up to four months without seeing their families because of the series taking place three weeks after the Twenty20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates and Oman is set to finish in November.
“This week, several meetings have been held between the England men’s players, ECB and Team England Player Partnership to discuss provisional plans for the tour of Australia later in the year,” a joint statement from the ECB and Professional Cricketers’ Association read. “All parties are collaborating and will continue to work together to understand protocols around bubble environments, family provision and quarantine rules that will be in place for the tour during the current Covid-19 pandemic.
“With player and management’s welfare paramount, the ECB will discuss planning and operational requirements with Cricket Australia in the coming weeks and how they seek to implement their policies in partnership with state and federal governments.
“All stakeholders are committed to putting player and staff welfare as the main priority and finding the right solutions that enable the England team to compete with the best players and at the highest possible standard that the Ashes series deserves.”
The 2005 Ashes-winning captain, Michael Vaughan, said last week he would be amazed if England were at full strength unless travel exemption was given for the tourists’ families. A potential alternative would be to base the families in New Zealand, where a travel corridor into Australia had been established – although that was suspended this month.
The England off-spinner Dom Bess said on Tuesday it would be hard to turn down the chance of being involved in an Ashes series even if the restrictions made it difficult for family to be present on the tour.
He said: “Obviously I don’t know what will be happening or what Australia and their regulations are – but I think if your name was on the ticket and you were going to an Ashes series as a 24-year-old, you would never ever turn that down. I think it would be very tough leaving family and supporters at home but it is an Ashes series away from home, something you dream of, playing against the Australians in Australia and looking to win there. I don’t think anyone would be able to turn that down, certainly anyone who has dreams of doing that.”