England Test captain Ben Stokes says he feared he might not play again during his mental health break from the sport.
The 31-year-old suffered panic attacks after bottling up his emotions for several years.
“It was like I had a glass bottle I kept on throwing my emotions into. Eventually, it got too full and just exploded,” Stokes told BBC Breakfast.
Stokes has had a difficult few years, first taking compassionate leave from cricket in 2020 to be with his father Ged, who died later that year from brain cancer.
He then broke a finger on his return to the sport and ultimately rushed to make a comeback to captain England’s limited-overs teams after a Covid outbreak forced them to pick an entirely new squad in July 2021.
Following that series against Pakistan, Stokes took an indefinite break, returning for the Ashes in Australia in December 2021, and was appointed Test captain in April this year.
In a wide-ranging interview, Stokes discussed:
- The long-term impact of the Bristol incident in 2017 which led to his being charged with affray
- The death of his father, who had a huge impact on his career
- Changing the conversation around mental health breaks
Stokes was speaking before his documentary – Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes – airs on Amazon Prime from 26 August.
‘I’d give off this big tough northern lad bravado’
In the documentary, Stokes speaks openly about his struggles and says he wants to help change the narrative around mental health breaks.
“I did an interview where I’d give off this bravado of being a big tough northern lad with tattoos. I was like ‘well, I am tough, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t struggle mentally’,” he told the BBC.
“One of the more powerful things about that, that I notice from the film, was when [England pace bowler] Stuart Broad said he could see me not playing again.
“I had never spoken to Stuart about that through my time away. I spoke to him a lot through that period but just general chit-chat, nothing too serious.
“I had never said the words to him but the fact that he got that feeling was an eye-opener to me that at that time, things were quite bad.”
Stokes said he was “annoyed” that negative connotations were drawn around his break when he was named Test captain earlier this year.
“It felt like people were saying I couldn’t do the job because I decided to take a break last year,” he said.
“I was like, ‘what’s that got to do with being England captain’? If anything, it shows that you can do anything, even if you have decided to take a break.”
‘Such a big inspiration to me had left the world’
Stokes’ father was a former rugby league international for New Zealand, and his son credited him with “instilling in me what I am today”.
“When he wasn’t there, for him not be able to text me to say ‘well done’ – that just stopped and that was a reason as to why I ended up being where I was,” Stokes explained.
“Such a big inspiration to me had left the world and left me. I had to then find what it was to get me going again, what my inspiration was.
“I was very proud to be able to share him with people and show what he means to me.”
Stokes also said his father’s influence is shaping him into the kind of cricket captain he wishes to be.
“I would never ask somebody to do something I would not do myself, and I have got that from him,” he said.
“The fact that he was sat in a chair dying of cancer and he was worried about the effect on me, the fact that I am not going to spend much time with him… just thinking about other people is something that he has taught me.”
‘Bristol will still affect my life in future’
Stokes was found not guilty of affray in September 2018 following a fight near a nightclub in Bristol a year earlier. He was not selected by England for several months after the incident.
“My wife Clare makes a great point of saying that just because when the verdict came in, don’t assume that was the end of that incident,” he said.
“That Bristol incident will still have an effect on my life and on our lives in the future. Just an example – we’re going to have to sit our kids down one day and explain what that was all about.
“As they get older, no doubt people will ask them about it and we don’t want them to be in the dark about that and then to come home and ask about it.”
Stokes played in a Test for England both before and after the trial, but says he struggled once he left the field at the end of the day.
“Being in the dressing room at the time was great, because I was around people,” he added.
“The hardest bit was when the day had finished and I had gone back to my room. I didn’t want to leave the hotel, I was just sat on my bed.
“Those periods for me were the loneliest and the hardest. For me that was the start of another part of that Bristol thing.”