THE ASHES, 2021-22
Root and Stokes are different characters but share similar values. © Getty
When Ben Stokes decided to take a break from cricket during the summer, one of his first calls was to Joe Root. They are close friends and it was a mark of the trust between them that Stokes felt able to say that something was amiss. Later, Root would explain that hearing his friend tell him what he was going through was incredibly hard. Root did not care about what Stokes’ absence meant for England’s series against India. “I just want my friend to be OK,” he said.
Root and Stokes are different characters but share similar values. The former has softer edges, less chest thumping and more arm round the shoulder, whereas Stokes can be more abrasive, more direct and liable to shove a rocket up someone, no matter who they are. He had a very public pop at Stuart Broad during a drinks break in the Centurion Test against South Africa last year while he can be punchy during press conferences. Root is polite to a fault which is well regarded by his peers but has led to some questioning his ruthlessness.
But while they may be different types of people, Root and Stokes share common values, most notably their willingness to look after their mates. Speak to those who have played and worked with Root and the theme that emerges most strongly is how much he cares for people and how much he makes everyone feel valued. Stokes is similar and he has been particularly protective of Jofra Archer since he came into England’s team. Root has described Stokes as a “fine human being” and earlier this year said, “Anyone who knows Ben knows he always puts other people first.”
Perhaps that is why they have become so close and why they clearly care for each other so much. It was Stokes who stood up in the hotel the night before the first Test against India in February and spoke movingly about Root ahead of his 100th game. Although the detail of what Stokes said remains private, Root said he will remember the words forever. Last year, when Stokes captained England against West Indies while Root was on paternity leave, the captain left Stokes a handwritten note on his blazer which simply said: “Do it your way”.
During Stokes’ lay-off, it was Root who he kept in touch with. Other members of the squad sent messages of support but Stokes didn’t respond. Nor did he speak to Chris Silverwood, the head coach, for much of his recuperation. At an exceptionally difficult moment of his life, Stokes turned to Root. It says a lot about the trust the pair have built up. When the all-rounder felt ready to come back, again it was Root he called. England’s captain said it was a “joy” to hear the happiness back in his friend’s voice.
Their friendship has been 20 years in the making. Root and Stokes first met during an Under-12s game between Yorkshire and Cumbria – Stokes got Root out – and first played together when they were 14 years old during the 2006 Bunbury Festival, an annual tournament which brings together some of the most talented youngsters from across the country. Countless international and domestic professionals have played at Bunbury over the years and Root and Stokes were selected together in a north squad captained by Azeem Rafiq and which also contained Jordan Clark, now at Surrey.
Root was regarded as a better prospect at that stage of his development and opened the batting, averaging 55. Although he also played every game, Stokes was a more peripheral figure. The next time they shared a dressing room was for England Under-19s, first on the 2009 tour to Bangladesh and then during the World Cup in New Zealand in early 2010. Stokes had the better tournament then. “Joe and Ben were already two of the lads who people followed,” John Abrahams, the coach of that squad, told the ECB website in 2017. “You could already see the characters in them that have become more familiar now.”
It wasn’t long before both were in England’s Test team. Root made his debut in India in 2012 while Stokes, who took more time to mature as a person, was handed his first game on the 2013/14 Ashes tour. Since then, the pair have, for the most part, been central figures in England’s Test side, going through plenty of ups and downs together, both on and off the field.
Aside from establishing themselves in the team, they have also taken on leadership responsibilities together. When Root was made captain in 2017, he wanted Stokes as his vice and even though Stokes had the position temporarily taken off him after the fall-out from the incident in Bristol, he was soon back at Root’s side. They are now – and have been for some time – the leaders of England’s Test squad.
That is not the only reason this Ashes tour is a significant moment for the pair of them. While both played on the 2013/14 Ashes tour, they were young players then still finding their feet – Root was dropped for the final Test – and Stokes missed the 2017/18 series because of his ruckus in Bristol. This series will be the first time both have played an away Ashes series together as experienced, proven, world-class players. It is a fascinating prospect.
Stokes’ presence is a significant boost for England as a team and Root personally. As captain and vice-captain and the squad’s two best players, the pair are central to the tourists’ chances from a cricketing viewpoint. It is hard to see England landing a blow on the Australians unless both have good series, particularly with the bat. But distinct from their cricketing value, the pair’s bond, and their complementary traits, give England a little something extra too. Root will certainly benefit from having Stokes’ bloody mindedness and aggression about the place.
Friendship does not win Test matches or Ashes series, of course. But the strength of the bond that Root and Stokes have formed over nearly two decades will certainly help over the course of the next few weeks. They have grown up together and travelled the world together. Become parents and got married. Dealt with adulation and criticism. All their shared experiences brought them close. The events of the past few months have tightened their relationship even further.
Now they are about to embark on an away Ashes series as captain and vice-captain, the pinnacle for an England Test cricketer. They will do it together, two best mates, living their dream.
Win, lose or draw, life doesn’t get much better than that.