Timothy Hammersley ponders how Ben Stokes’ removal from the English Cricket Team will affect their chances in The Ashes
England’s chances of retaining the Ashes have taken a significant blow now that vice-captain Ben Stokes has been all but ruled out of being selected.
At present, he won’t travel with the squad when they leave for Australia on October 28th. The prevailing consensus is the outcome of the ongoing police investigation into events outside a Bristol nightclub in September, an occurrence that will not be favourable to Stokes, and will likely prevent him joining up with the squad later in the tour.
Now that Stokes’ participation, or lack of, in the Ashes is clear, England must look to re-shape and rebalance what up to now has been a solid side which bar numbers 2, 3, and 5 in the batting order, pretty much picked itself. Stokes has been a lynchpin in the test side for the last few years and has enabled selectors to take more risks at the top and bottom of the order, knowing that the presence of Stokes in the middle would more often than not put in a solid performance with bat and ball. By being able to come in at 50-4 and rebuild an innings over several sessions, come in at 300-4 and score a run a ball century to bat the opposition out of the game, or bowling a spell that completely changes the dynamics of a match, Stokes is in that special, era-defining breed of cricketer. Like Botham, and Flintoff before him, Stokes has injected an energy and drive in the test team that has had not just a material effect on results, but an almost tangible effect on the atmosphere around the team.
“Like Botham, and Flintoff before him, Stokes has injected an energy and drive in the test team”
The absence of Stokes poses a difficult decision for England selectors, with no one else in the county game who can bowl for long spells at over 85mph, and bat in top 6. Do they pick an out and out batsman at 6 to provide support for what is, and to put it mildly, a fragile England top order, or do they move the likes of Baristow, Ali and Woakes up the order and play an extra seam bowler to provide support to the bowling attack who will be tested to the extreme in Australian conditions. Steven Finn has been added to the squad in place of Stokes suggesting the selectors are keen on playing an extra seamer, somewhat of a turnaround for the Middlesex bowler given that he was deemed “unselectable” by the then England coach Ashley Giles on England’s last tour of Australia in 2013-14. However, there is the possibility of playing James Vince or Ben Foakes at 6 to provide support with the bat, albeit it with the former having failed to impress when in the test side last summer.
“The absence of Stokes poses a difficult decision for England selectors”
However, what England will really miss through the absence of Stokes is less what he does in a game, but the way he does it. On England’s last ill-fated tour to Australia, Stokes, a debutant, provided a spark to an otherwise diabolically lack-lustre side. His 120 at Perth whilst the rest of the side collapsed around him showed character and maturity beyond his years. Since then he has taken the cricket world by storm, a record breaking 258 in South Africa, taking apart the Australian batting line-up with 6 for 36 at Trent Bridge, and taking catches that quite frankly defy the laws of physics. All of these feats completely changed a game, and that epitomises Stokes as the game changing individual he has proved to be. There is arguably no other player in international cricket that can have such an immediate impact. His absence in Australia means England will lack the chance to set the agenda without Stokes’ provision of the ability to steer a series one way or another. Without him in their side, England risk letting Australia take the series away from them, and have no apparent answer to it. We shall see what happens in the first test, and if England can leave Brisbane having avoided defeat, then anything could happen. However for now, it looks like it will be another long winter for England down under.