If there has ever been a sporting figurehead for a year’s success, it was undeniably Ben Stokes in 2019, having spearheaded England not only to their first ever Cricket World Cup triumph but having salvaged the Third Test of the Ashes, almost single-handedly, aside from a heroic, spectacle-steaming effort from Jack Leach, and denying Australia outright winning the series. Stokes is quick to deflect the attention and plaudits away from himself and back on to what is without doubt a remarkable team, but even his teammates, I suspect, would agree that last summer’s cricketing success story may have been very different had Stokes not been around. And, in 2018, that was a very real possibility as Stokes faced his biggest off-field battle. Fortunately, for English cricket, though, Stokes was able to prove himself once more on the cricket pitch and he did so in extraordinary fashion, collecting not only his World Cup winners’ medal, but Sports Personality of the Year and Wisden Leading Cricketer in the World in a historic year for the New Zealand-born, Durham-raised all-rounder.
It is this year, or rather, this summer, of success that is the focus for Stokes’ second autobiography, On Fire. It is a strange phenomenon that Stokes’ book spans merely a matter of months when, traditionally, autobiographies plot a life’s successes across decades, but such was the magnitude of Stokes’ success that there is more than enough content from just summer 2019 to provide not just a token memento but a genuinely epic saga. As such, the typical autobiography life story is missing from this book, as too are the momentous off-field events that threatened to undo Stokes’ career – this book literally picks up at the start of the Cricket World Cup and concludes with the last test of the Ashes. It is a book entirely about on-field success and a testament to Stokes’ accomplishments that the story of a summer can fill a book that others would take a lifetime to furnish.
In the first half of the book, Stokes takes readers through each match of the Cricket World Cup, to varying degrees, culminating with a more in-depth commentary of that unbelievable final spectacle. The second half then turns to the Ashes as Stokes again takes readers through the key moments in those vital five tests. Scoresheets are provided for each match and they are a great addition, reminding readers not only of the all-round picture of each game but, more often than not, Stokes’ own indispensable contribution. It would have been nice to perhaps have tournament figures as a whole included, but the individual match figures give a sense of the momentum and trajectory of each event.
It is great to hear Stokes’ personal insight into some of those crucial moments on which England’s fate hinged and what really comes across is both his maturity as a cricketer and his responsibility as a teammate. It is easy to have a picture of Stokes as something of a firecracker, but there is a very clear sense in which he seems to have a developed a much more measured and pragmatic approach to the game and the wider picture of a match. He is still without doubt a very competitive and focused cricketer, but his observations and calculations prove him to be a thoughtful and considered player, as epitomised in several of his innings, in particular, last summer. And this broader understanding of his role and responsibility served to give England much-needed stability and reliability at the most pressing of times.
Stokes, too, proves himself to be a real asset as a teammate, not only in his role on the pitch but through the way he protects, compliments and supports his teammates in his comments in this book. It is not unusual for autobiographies to become battlegrounds for slinging insults, justified or not, but what really strikes in Stoke’s book is the way that he stands up for each and every one of his teammates. Even amongst questionable performances and criticisms from other quarters, Stokes hits on the positives in his teammates. However, his praise is never indulgent, and he’s quick to offer honest and constructive assessments of his teammates before commending their qualities. As a teammate, he seems to be both a motivator and an ally and there is no doubt that he would be the player you would want on your side, not least when backs are against the wall.
As a book about cricket, there is plenty to get your teeth into, and having the calibre of someone like Stokes explain the intricate decisions, processes and actions that determine individual shots as well as broader game plans is truly eye-opening. And for those who question the relevance of test match cricket in an increasingly white-ball world, Stokes’ commentary on his final stand with Leach in the third test of the Ashes emphasises the tactical, physical and emotional battles that are unique to the test format. And Stokes really extols the virtues of both the long and short forms of the game and the skills and qualities involved. I would have liked to see a bit more of the on-field skirmishing and behind the scenes of how players reacted to the various ups and downs of the summer. It would also have been great to have a final summarising chapter about Stokes’ life immediately after the ashes, but this book is a unique memento of one of the greatest summers in sport and so there can be no real qualms that the on-field action at both the World Cup and the Ashes is the be-all and end-all. I suspect for Ben Stokes, however, summer 2019 won’t be the be-all and end-all in his monumental cricketing story.
On Fire – Ben Stokes / Sports Book Awards Autobiography of the Year shortlisted