England have set themselves up for another “will he or won’t he” saga over Ben Stokes despite his name being left off the 17-man squad for the Ashes tour named on Sunday evening.
There were few surprises and even less excitement in the announcement, with many England fans and pundits bracing for a torrid tour.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, it shapes as an unusually gruelling one for the players. And thanks to injury, to Stokes (finger) and Jofra Archer (elbow) especially, few are expecting England to cause Australia much concern.
There was one intriguing aspect in the aftermath of the announcement, however. Four years ago Stokes, in limbo over an assault charge of which he was later acquitted, was sent to play first-class cricket in New Zealand while England mulled if he should join the Ashes touring party. It caused a media storm, he never came and Australia charged to a 4-0 win.
Fast forward to now and Stokes is recovering from recent surgery to a broken finger, along with mental health concerns.
In Joe Root, England has one of the world’s best batsmen, but beyond him they are crying out for Stokes’ X-factor and aggression.
England coach Chris Silverwood would not rule out adding Stokes to the squad closer to the first day of the series on December 8, or even after it starts.
“Ben is moving forward, the communications I have had with him he is definitely more upbeat. But what I will say is there will be no pressure from me for him to rush back,” said Silverwood.
“I’ve said when you’re ready you call me and we’ll make a plan from there. My concern first and foremost is his wellbeing. And when he does come back we’ll make sure he’s in the right place.”
Former England captain Nasser Hussain, writing in the Daily Mail, labelled the team “predictable” and the absence of Stokes “the biggest concern”
“It gives England a massive selection headache,” wrote Hussein. “Without him, it will be a nightmare trying to balance the side and I envisage England going into matches with an all-seam attack backed up by Root’s off-spin.
“Without someone of Stokes’s all-round calibre, you are either sacrificing a batsman and creating a long tail, or muddling through with a four-man attack including a frontline spinner. With the Kookaburra ball, that is a daunting prospect.”
Silverwood said he would not be constantly checking on Stokes, instead leaving the communications to skipper Root, whom he praised for his leadership as England and Cricket Australia faced off over touring protocols.
“I thought he showed a lot of class and empathy towards both sides of the argument, towards Cricket Australia and towards his players,” said Silverwood.
“His players have got behind him and will follow him, so will I and my staff. I think we’ve got to a good place before what should be a very competitive series in Australia.”
So what of England’s squad? Ten of the 17, including vice-captain Jos Buttler, will be experiencing an Australian Ashes tour for the first time, although there are no uncapped players.
The two finger-spin options, Jack Leach and Dom Bess, didn’t play a Test last northern summer as England were beaten by New Zealand and trailed 2-1 against India before the tourists packed up and left the tour before it finished.
Silverwood told reporters England can deliver ‘something special’ Down Under, but there will be a lot resting on the shoulders of ageing warriors James Anderson and Stuart Broad along with their captain.
“We are battle-hardened, we’ve had some success along the way and we’ve proven we can compete with India,” Silverwood told reporters.
“The important thing for me is our players have seen what the best in the world look like, they’ve played against it, they’ve felt what it is to have them push against us.”
The reaction to the selection in England was muted, at best.
“The fact that Silverwood was able to reveal a passenger list including literally every one of England’s current best Test players – unless you happen to be a diehard James Vince fan – should be cause for cheer, not to mention a hearty slap on the back to those who have made such an outcome possible,” wrote Emma John in the Guardian.
“The problem is that Australia are still seen as such overwhelming favourites for the series that the first instinct isn’t to celebrate but to count the ways in which the published batting lineup has let England down in the past two years.
“Or to subtract the average speed of the bowling attack from the numbers of miles per hour which may have been available had Jofra Archer and Olly Stone not been injured. There is nothing some England supporters love to indulge in more than the anticipation of defeat.
“And it is hard not to be overcome with a premonition of doom, based largely on a melancholy reflection of where Joe Root’s team were supposed to have been at this point in their evolution.”
Former England captain Mike Atherton, writing in The Times, said “it is not the most inspiring-looking team that England have ever sent to Australia and is missing two players, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, who would have made a huge difference.
“Last time, for very different reasons, [Stokes’] shadow loomed large over the tour. Whether that will be the case this time was made more likely by Silverwood’s non-committal response, but the hope must be that Stokes will feel rejuvenated in time to add to his four Tests in the country — however unlikely.
“It is odd to think that he has still played only two Tests there since his maiden hundred in Perth eight years ago, the innings that gave notice of his talent and character.”
Atherton did hold some comfort in that while “it is not the strongest squad England have taken to Australia — nor is it the weakest.”
“Australia might be so described as well, strong as they are in bowling but less so in batting,” Atherton wrote. “Any doubts over England’s prospects are tempered to some extent by the doubts in Australia’s camp, where much rests on the form of Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, and the fitness of the main three fast bowlers: Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc.
“Quite what degree of readiness Australia’s players will be in is anyone’s guess, because they have played no Test cricket since being beaten at home by a second-string India team nine months ago.
“There have been rumblings about the coach, Justin Langer, since then and David Warner’s place will come under scrutiny if he starts badly. Beyond the main bowlers, the threat recedes.”
England, though, will have to outperform what they have shown from these tourists, to seriously worry the hosts.
Root is the only batsman in the squad who averages over 40. Rory Burns and Haseeb Hameed are the expected opening pair, and therefore under enormous pressure from the start, with Dawid Malan at No.3; followed by Ollie Pope and Jonny Bairstow with Zak Crawley and Dan Lawrence as back-up options.
“Joe’s stats speak for themselves, we know he’s class,” said Silverwood.
“The rest of them, there’s no hiding from it, we have to score runs. At some point, we do need people to put their hands up. But I promise you this, they are working very hard to make sure that they are successful.”
And yet, for all of Root’s recent success, he hardly has a record to inspire against Australia. He’s never scored a century here – in fact the only England captain to do so Down Under in the 2000s was Andrew Strauss. And on the last tour his England team was beaten by the third Test, he was described as a ‘little boy’ by Ricky Ponting and he ended the series on a drip in hospital.
So far in 2021 Root has scored 1,455 Test runs to average 58.06. Only Burns, apart from Root, has an England Test century this year. England not only expects – it requires.
Joe Root (Yorkshire) captain, James Anderson (Lancashire), Jonny Bairstow (Yorkshire), Dom Bess (Yorkshire), Stuart Broad (Nottinghamshire), Rory Burns (Surrey), Jos Buttler (Lancashire) vice-captain, Zak Crawley (Kent), Haseeb Hameed (Nottinghamshire), Dan Lawrence (Essex), Jack Leach (Somerset), Dawid Malan (Yorkshire), Craig Overton (Somerset), Ollie Pope (Surrey), Ollie Robinson (Sussex), Chris Woakes (Warwickshire), Mark Wood (Durham).