Analysis: Without Stokes, England have their work cut out
He will not be ready in time for the Ashes but after a second operation on his left index finger on Monday, Ben Stokes was able to clench his fist for the first time since suffering the injury in April and can begin to look forward to rehabilitating properly and playing cricket again.
He is currently taking a break to protect his mental wellbeing, which was partly linked to the injury that caused him “unbelievable pain” when he made an aborted comeback in June and left him wondering about his future. The second operation to remove two screws also cleaned up scar tissue and he immediately felt better; his wellbeing “going through the roof” according to sources and England hope he may play again this winter.
Stokes’s absence from the Ashes tour four years ago due to his impending court case was fatal for England’s chances in Australia and they lost 4-0. They missed his batting and bowling but also his will to win and drive that inspires his teammates during tough phases of play. They also lacked a menacing edge against an Australian side that was at its most aggressive a year before their ball-tampering humiliation.
It was unthinkable six months ago that after his barnstorming 2019 summer Stokes would not go to Australia. He was desperate to make up for missing the last tour, carrying a guilt for leaving Joe Root to face Australia without him. Following his Headingley heroics, he knew Australia feared him.
But at least Root has had more time to come to terms with Stokes’s loss this time and plan for being without him. It has been clear to England for a few weeks that he would not be ready for a return and to be thrown into the toughest tour of all for an England cricketer.
So much of England’s Ashes planning was based around Stokes and the pace of Jofra Archer, Mark Wood and Olly Stone. Only one of those players, Wood, will go to Australia and his record suggests England will do well to get three Tests out of him. Archer and Stone have long term injuries leaving England down on pace bowling. Trevor Bayliss, the coach four years ago, said after that Ashes tour they must not return with more of the same 80-85mph right arm over pace bowling. But circumstances have worked against England, and Root will have to make do with an attack built around Ollie Robinson and James Anderson, returning to Australia almost 20 years after his international debut in Melbourne.
Anderson was England’s most successful bowler four years ago, the only one to average below 37 (Stuart Broad averaged 47, Chris Woakes 49), where flat, slow wickets played into Australian hands because they had the pace of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins to rise above the conditions.
“If we make a decision that the away Ashes series is the Holy Grail, you have to get guys in well ahead of 12 months out to give them enough experience so they can come here and perform well,” said Bayliss warned at the end of that trip.
England had been following that advice until the pandemic struck when they started to rotate players and lost their way. They began the summer with Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley, Dan Lawrence and Ollie Pope in their top six. None would have played the last Test of the summer against India at Old Trafford had it gone ahead with Pope to be dropped for Jos Buttler’s return from paternity leave. The failure of a young batsmen to emerge last summer was bitterly disappointing for Silverwood.
Sibley lost his central contract but could be part of the Lions squad named next week to shadow the main Ashes touring party in case of injuries or covid outbreak. When Crawley was dropped after one Test against India it was made clear England felt he could still do well on flat Australian pitches and he will be the spare opener, while Pope will be fighting with Jonny Bairstow for the no 5 position.
Haseeb Hameed was not given a central contract on Friday but will go as the first choice opener to partner Rory Burns. Dawid Malan will bat at three, two places higher than where he made his only Test century in Perth four years ago, while Jos Buttler, after long agonising over quarantine rules for his family, will be Root’s deputy and wicketkeeper.
Jack Leach did not play all summer but the retirement of Moeen Ali has left him as England’s senior spinner but with work to do to convince Root he is good enough at Test level. Dom Bess received an increment contract on Friday, one rung below a central contract, suggesting he will be the spare spinner although Matt Parkinson, as a leggie, offers variety and will receive at least a Lions call up.
England victories in Australia are a once in a generation event. The win in 2010-11 was the first since 1986-87, and before that the previous victory – not including wins over an Australia side weakened by losses to World Series Cricket – was under Ray Illingworth in 1970-71. Root captains an Ashes tour for the second time once again handicapped by absences. Much rests on his bat and his golden run continuing.