“Setbacks are your biggest teacher.”
One of the most impactful lines uttered by the central character in Ben Stokes: Phoenix from The Ashes not just underlines the crux of the film but also the basis for what makes Ben Stokes the individual that he is. It captures both the English test captain’s triumphs on the field and his struggles away from it.
Directed by Chris Grubb and Luke Mellows, the documentary provides an idea into the cricketer’s mental make-up, his guiding principles and the factors that inform his game. The Amazon Prime Video release has insights from the late Shane Warne, Stokes’s teammates Joe Root, Jos Buttler, Mark Wood and Jofra Archer, his manager Neil Fairbrother and his family members.
The film includes revealing raw footage of Stokes’s younger days in Cumbria in north-eastern England, his thirtieth birthday celebrations, a physiotherapy session for his broken finger and the tenderness of a son dealing with his father Gerard’s terminal disease. Oscar-winning film-maker Sam Mendes (American Beauty, 1917) serves as the documentary’s executive producer.
Stokes, is self-admittedly restrained in his one-on-one with Mendes throughout the film and he traces it back to the core of what sets the movie apart –- a cricketer with a larger than life image who is struggling with mental health, particularly anxiety, and trying to navigate through his own demons.
The film features stunning cinematography, and cinematic sequences with Stokes as the centre of it all, often juxtaposed with voiceovers from his team mates and late father Ged Stokes.
Solely from a cricket lover’s point of view, the greatest bit remains the cinematic re-telling of Stokes’s redemption story – from the 2016 World T20 last-over loss against Carlos Brathwaite and West Indies to the 2019 World Cup hero and the remarkable run chase in Headingley. To hear about the unbeaten 135 from Stokes and for it to be dissected by Root in the backdrop of a fight to prevent the Ashes from being retained by a ruthless Australia, illustrated a test of character.
The documentary doesn’t shy away from Stokes’s involvement in an incident of affray in Bristol. The incident outside a nightclub that cost him his place on the Ashes tour of Australia. While the film doesn’t cover up the cricketer’s involvement, it does make the point that the subsequent media trial was debilitating for Stokes. His partner, Clare, addresses the fallout of Stokes’s demonisation in the media, alongside tracing the build-up to the anxiety he continues to experience.
He is the best cricketer alive, say his kids but he is also the same guy who, according to Warne, is the hardest trainer he has ever seen. He is also the guy Wood nicknamed a ‘Beast’ in his early days, simply because of his ability to soldier on and he is also the guy who has gone from being the British media’s classic bad boy to their poster boy and now, captain of the English men’s test cricket team.
The documentary hits multiple registers while telling the story of a man who has seen the drastic
highs and lows of life. But what it does best is make sure that there is more space for conversations around not being okay. Each time a hero of a nation admits to feeling so, it’s taking responsibility and prioritising mental well-being in a time where the hustle to becoming a hero is celebrated so much.
In Stokes’s own words, he went through his career fearing failure and now, rather than fearing failure, he advises to embrace it, instead. If there is one thing to take away from Ben Stokes: Phoenix from The Ashes, that would be it.