Ben Stokes and I have something in common as we catch up early summer, and it’s not mastering the art of cricket.
We’re both approaching a period of time away from our day job – doing what we love most.
As I prepare to pull together my final issue of Luxe Magazine before maternity leave, Ben is also getting to grips with a bit of time away from his passion. In his case, injury cut short his time playing in the Indian Premier League with the Rajasthan Royals back in April.
Like any professional, a sudden disruption in the schedule, particularly in the sporting world, can knock you for six (no pun
So as Ben and I sit down to discuss recent success stories and setbacks, it’s very much a time to take it easy and enjoy a bit of rare family time on home turf – and for the cricket star, that involves some much needed R&R at Seaham Hall.
A secluded, seaside spa hotel is the perfect tonic, and having recently come on board as an ambassador at the venue, it made sense to catch up over coffee in the hotel lounge.
“We’ve obviously been juggling various lockdowns since I came on board as an ambassador at Seaham Hall,” Ben explains.
“So it has been a little different, but I’m incredibly excited now we are starting to return to some form of normality, and I’m really looking forward to spending some time here with the family this summer.”
Time spent at home with the family is something of a rarity for Ben. As an international cricketer and vice-captain of the national side, much of his time is spent travelling the world and living out of a suitcase.
“When I was younger I would get agitated if I was at home for too long, away from what I was doing professionally, but now I’m able to completely separate the two,” says Ben.
“It’s something that I’ve just managed differently with age,” he adds.
“This time for me, while I’m away injured, is just about being a dad, being there for my family and enjoying some time at home.
“Don’t get me wrong, I can’t wait to get back to what I do, but I am able to understand that it’s important to rest, recharge and get fit again so I can be in my best form when the time is right again.”
Ben’s family home is just a short drive from Seaham Hall, so to be able to work in partnership with such a fantastic venue with such a wide offering, has been a wonderful experience so far.
“I’ll be making sure that, as a family, we’re spending a lot of time here because it’s such an amazing place,” says Ben.
“I knew of Seaham Hall before. I had been a handful of times for dinner and for weddings. My friend and teammate Graham Onions got married here, it was a great day.
“Seaham Hall has always had that edge – there’s a certain buzz about the place. It’s got first-class facilities and it’s a real escape. It’s certainly a place we can be proud of up here in the North East.”
Reflecting on a whirlwind couple of years, from the remarkable 2019 Cricket World Cup success, to being crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2019 and then having a disrupted 2020/2021 season due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and the global pandemic that followed, Ben is optimistic about what the future holds for his beloved sport.
“It’s amazing what sport can do to lift spirits and bring people together – even when we’re stuck in our own homes,” says Ben.
“So, despite a number of both personal, team-wide and indeed global setbacks, it’s fantastic to see things looking up as we head into the summer months and plan for the back end of 2021.”
“Since the highs of 2019, the world is obviously a completely different place. But these little, monumental steps towards normality really do pick us up.
“I’ve been one of the lucky few that have been able to mostly continue doing my job throughout the pandemic, albeit in a different environment, but it still doesn’t take away from the fact that I want that normality back.
“Once things started up again, it was fairly positive. Every series, every tour, every game – whatever we played – almost felt like it was a trial for how the next series was going to be run, because nobody really knew what to expect from the experience.
“Since sport came back on the screens and people have been able to watch it, it has been pretty consistent. It was the lift we all needed, but we are ready to get the crowds in and have a bit of normality back. It’s slowly edging towards that again, which is great.”
The backing of fans is a huge part of the lives of any sportsperson. It’s a source of motivation, the encouragement needed to succeed; so playing to an empty stadium was quite the challenge for Ben and his teammates.
“It was fine to start with because we’d spent so long away that the excitement from the general public just being able to watch us play again in some way – on TV, or just following the live score – was enough.
“We understood that we were privileged to be able to do it and we knew that we had a responsibility to give everything that we could at that time to give people a bit of a buzz when times were tough.
“We felt privileged to be able to do that for people and bring it into people’s homes. Once we stepped onto the field and got back to doing what we loved, the pressure eased off and we just enjoyed it.
“There was definitely an element of making up for lost time when we got back to it, but it soon became quite obvious that we wouldn’t be able to do everything in the way that we normally would.
“We were staying at the grounds that we were playing at, so we literally couldn’t get away from work. You’d finish the day then you’d go to the room and be able to see the cricket ground through your window – it was quite intense.
“Even though, as athletes we love what we do, you do need to have that sense of escape. The cricket field is our office at the end of the day, and you do need to remove yourself from that environment. Sometimes you don’t want to see your office from your bedroom,” Ben laughs.
“But I guess that has been the case for many people working from home this year. It’s just a different way of living in the ‘new normal’.
“It was strange; we’d gone from time away from the cricket field completely, to literally living there for periods of time.”
Sporting schedules were back in place in early 2021, albeit in a new way with no fans. One of Ben’s earliest fixtures was time spent with the Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League.
The IPL 2021 tournament was suspended due to the outbreak of coronavirus infections in the country and has since been scheduled to resume in the United Arab Emirates in autumn.
But before the tournament was postponed, Ben headed home with an injury.
“My time in India was cut short because I picked up an injury – I broke my finger.
“I’ve got to give the BCCI – the Board of Control for Cricket in India – a lot of credit in terms of being able to do what they did in getting the competition underway.
“But my personal opinion is that they made the right call in postponing it because there’s a lot more at stake over there at the moment in terms of looking after the population.
“As strange as it sounds, I’ve actually never felt so fortunate to be injured – I managed to get out of a situation that turned quite bad for people who were out there participating in the IPL.
“Since then, I’ve had surgery, but it’s impossible to put a time on recovery because I don’t want to rush back too early and get more setbacks. People think, ‘it’s only a broken finger’, but you’ve got to be very careful about getting back to it.
“I will be playing cricket at some point this summer, I’m just not sure when.”
In the meantime, it’s about taking time to recover, marking those milestones as restrictions are lifted, and enjoying family time at home.
“I’ve got a wife and two kids, so when I’m home for a little while it’s about getting back into the swing of it with the school run and what have you. Juggling after school clubs and everything, it’s chaos! I have huge respect for my wife who keeps everything in check while I’m away.
“I live in Castle Eden, so as I mentioned before, Seaham Hall is definitely playing a big part in my time at home with the family.
“I’m also playing a lot of golf at some of the fantastic courses in the region. Gaming is also incredibly big in sport at the moment, so I play a lot of Call of Duty with friends – it’s a great way for me to switch off.
“We’ve got two dogs, so we spend a lot of our time walking and exploring our village and local beaches.
“I’m celebrating my 30th birthday this summer, so my wife has some things up her sleeve. I know that one of the treats is to spend the night at Seaham Hall with dinner and treatments, so I’m really looking forward to that.
“It’s great to be able to spend time with friends and family and get our social lives back a little bit. It’s definitely feeling much more optimistic.”
The North East is very much home for Ben, albeit an ‘adopted’ home, having moved from New Zealand as a child.
“I moved from New Zealand to Cumbria when I was 12, then I moved to Durham full-time and got my first place here when I was 19. I’ve had an association with Durham and the North East since I was 15.
“I can now drive everywhere without a Sat Nav, so I guess we can safely say it’s home,” he laughs.
The two countries might be worlds apart on the map, but there are many similarities between the North East and New Zealand, Ben tells me.
“When I first moved over I was asking for chips, which in New Zealand is a bag of crisps, so I’d end up with a bowl of hot chips every time I wanted a snack. Little things like that took a bit of getting used to,” he laughs.
“But it soon felt like home. The lifestyle is different – and the weather, of course – but New Zealand is quite similar to England in a way, in certain areas. The scenery is very similar to Cumbria and the Lake District – lots of rolling countryside and wonderfully quaint places to visit.
“I moved to a great school in Cockermouth, I was in great junior sporting teams and my cricket career went from there really.
“Cumbria is a minor county in cricket, with major cricketing counties surrounding it including Lancashire, Yorkshire and Durham. So generally, if someone catches the eye in Cumbria, they’ll end up playing for one of those counties. For me it was Durham and I’ve never looked back.
“Home is here now, but I’ll always be proud to say I grew up in New Zealand – I spent 12 years of my life there.
“I try to visit when I’m away on tour. I’ll be in Australia at the back end of the year, so I can jump on a flight to go and see family, which is always nice.”
Despite missing out on the start of England’s international summer, Ben has his sights set on a return to playing for Durham, confirming he’ll be back on the cricket field at some point this summer.
Following that, he’s confident that the back end of the year will be more promising for him post-injury.
“We’ve got the T20 World Cup coming up in October and November and then we’ll be in Australia for the Ashes from November. Something has gone seriously wrong if my finger is still playing up by then, so I’m really looking forward to getting back to it and having a busy back end of the year in the sport.”
When he’s not scoring runs, taking wickets and getting his country over the line in big tournaments, you’ll find Ben unwinding at Seaham Hall or sneaking in a round at his local golf club.
“Life is all about balance, and I’m really enjoying finding that balance at the moment as I continue on the road to recovery.”