“Ben is a better person to who he was pre-Bristol, without a doubt. It changed him for the better,” Fairbrother says poignantly in the documentary. But the scrutiny, being judged by anyone and everyone, and all the theories on what happened that night took their toll on Stokes.
In July 2021, Fairbrother was the person at the end of the phone when Stokes broke down in his bathroom one morning. Fairbrother says that when Stokes called him, he couldn’t breathe, he was in tears and was practically incoherent.
“You can’t pick and choose when something like this is going to happen. I didn’t all of a sudden just go, ‘You know what, I’m gonna be really anxious, and I’m gonna have a panic attack in my bathroom today,’” says Stokes, who admits in the film that the panic attacks had worsened since his father passed away. “That just happens. It was my body and my mind reacting to so many things over a long period of time. Everything just got too much for me.”
Since taking that break and seeking help, today, Stokes has the look of a man who is in a much better place. Having previously labelled himself “not much of a talker”, he’s now not afraid to speak up on behalf of all the non-talkers out there struggling. “People say it’s a sign of weakness. Fuck off,” he says. “It’s stronger to come out and actually say how you feel rather than hide behind this bravado of ‘I can’t show that I’m mentally struggling because it’s weak.’ It’s not weak, it’s stronger.
“And yet, journos still say to me, ‘You’ve got to provide a big tough-guy image as you have loads of tattoos and stuff,’ he smiles. “And I am like, yeah, exactly. I am tough.”
Sunday August 25, 2019. The time is 4:17pm. With the sun beating down on Headingley cricket ground, Stokes is standing in the middle of pitch – hands on his head – trying to fathom what’s just happened. The capacity crowd are delirious; 20,000-odd fans in dreamland, in shock and euphoric at what they have just witnessed. England – sorry, Stokes – had just done the unthinkable, the impossible.
His teammates duly mob him, with the cameras picking up things like, “You fucking beauty!” and. “Oh my god, that was unbelievable!”
At the press conference that follows, England captain Joe Root turns to the press and quips, “Do you even need me, or shall we just get Ben in here?”
It was Stokes’ defining moment of glory, all captured in Phoenix from the Ashes. The day before, with his 24.2 overs – eight more than anyone else – Stokes bowled himself into the ground until Australia were all out, restricting their lead to 359. It was a run chase that would require records to be broken. No one was thinking about anything else other than avoiding a defeat that would see England lose the Ashes. Except Stokes.
England dug deep and put in a dogged display, with Root making a spirited 77, but a ‘same-old England’ batting collapse left Stokes needing 76 runs with one wicket remaining. What transpired next is writ large into cricketing folklore. Aided admirably by the glasses-wiping antics of Jack Leach (who hit a solitary run), Stokes produced the greatest innings of all time to turn certain defeat into an emphatic victory. At the crease for five-and-a-half hours and facing 219 balls from some of the world’s best bowlers, Stokes hit 135 not out. It had everything; eight sixes, 11 boundaries sprayed all around the ground, dropped catches, botched appeals and missed run-outs.