Will Macpherson writes on Ben Stokes, who was named Wisden’s Leading Cricketer in the World (Men) in the 2023 edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

In 2022, Ben Stokes’s Test batting and bowling averages were 36 and 31 – roughly the same as his career figures. He played four one-day internationals, scoring 53 runs and taking no wickets, then retired from the format. He returned to T20 cricket, and overcame a modest start to play two vital innings. It was, according to the statistics, an unremarkable year. And yet Stokes was unquestionably the most influential figure in men’s cricket.

On April 28, Stokes had been appointed England’s Test captain by Rob Key, the ECB’s new managing director of men’s cricket. It was a risk: he had little captaincy experience, was considered a rough diamond, and less than a year earlier had taken a long break for mental health reasons. Key soon doubled down, pairing Stokes with Brendon McCullum, who had never coached a red-ball team. Key told fans it was “time for us all to buckle up and get ready for the ride”.

His words proved prescient. Stokes inherited England’s Test team at a low ebb – one win in 17, an Ashes obliteration, a state-of-the-nation review commissioned – and proved a transformative leader, as tactician and statesman. Under him, England won nine of their first ten Tests, in convention-defying fashion. It seemed each victory was more absurd than the last.

With Jonny Bairstow leading the charge, England’s gallivanting batting became their trademark. But perhaps Bazball should have been known as Benball: McCullum was Stokes’s facilitator, emboldening him and sanctioning his aggressive attitude. If Stokes was sometimes dismissed playing an ugly hoick, it was because he wanted to send his team a message.

Just as notable was the way he encouraged England to bowl. An attack rendered toothless in Australia, and ravaged by injury, took ten wickets in each of the first 19 innings under his leadership, as he constantly tinkered with his field in search of wickets. England’s overall approach reached its zenith in an extraordinary win at Rawalpindi, where they scored 506 for four in 75 overs on the opening day (after many of the squad were ill), then took 20 wickets on the flattest of pitches.

Unlike most, Stokes became Test captain when he had little to prove, his legacy already secure. “I took the job at a good time,” he says. “I had been playing long enough to know exactly how I saw the game, and in Brendon found someone who saw the world in a pretty similar way.”

He believed the secret lay in enjoyment, which he felt had been lost, especially in the Covid era. That England were now unbubbled was no coincidence. The midnight curfew stayed, but he and McCullum encouraged the team to socialise. It was all part of an effort to “remember why we first played the game”. For Stokes and McCullum, this was about more than winning: it was about selling a format they considered under threat.

“I wanted us to get results – win or lose, rather than draw,” he says. “Running towards the danger, not fearing failure, became a mantra, and we did that. There is enough automatic pressure being an international cricketer. We worked hard to remove the outside noise and pressure, and it’s amazing what that freedom can do to players, how it can help them excel. Don’t fear getting out, because it will happen. Don’t fear getting hit for four. Take away that burden, and look to entertain. I am very proud of our players for that, and results have followed. We all love Test cricket and want other people, especially youngsters, to love it as well. In that spirit, we’ve done everything we can. There’s a lot of angst around Test cricket and its future, but there’s no reason it can’t be the most popular format.”

Before England’s historic series win in Pakistan, Stokes’s horizons expanded even further. That pair of vital T20 innings? They came in big games at the World Cup, one in the final, guiding England to the title. Stokes’s street-smarts were reminiscent of his performance in the 2019 one-day World Cup final. Prevailing in a T20 final also buried the memory of his meeting with Carlos Brathwaite at Eden Gardens in 2016.

Throughout his career, Stokes has spoken well. But in 2022 he laid himself bare. There was a fly-on-the-wall documentary about his life, and he never ducked conversations about his break in 2021, or the death of his father a few months earlier. Nothing he said was as surprising, though, as the revolution he led.

The 2023 edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack is out now