So Ben Stokes will be coming to Australia for the Ashes? That’s not really a surprise, given England originally chose a 17-man squad.
Many assumed the touring party would be topped up with one or two players from the Lions team, which will be touring at the same time as the Ashes squad arrives in Australia.
That the 18th position was left open for Stokes makes sense, but also closes off some opportunities for other match-ready players who might have been a chance to participate in an Ashes tour.
The two squads will play a couple of practice matches, which will now assume real significance, given Stokes’ lack of match practice. The last time he held a bat in any kind of match was a T20 game on July 26 and he’s had no involvement in Test cricket since February.
What’s been interesting is the reaction from different people in England. Ashley Giles, the managing director of cricket, was positive but circumspect:
“Time and time again, Ben has demonstrated how important he is to the England team and having him available for the Ashes series is excellent news,” Giles said.
“Having not played for some time, we will move forward cautiously over the next few weeks to ensure he is fully prepared across all facets of his game…
“We continue to remain mindful of the stresses on all our personnel, and our primary focus continues to be the wellbeing of all of our players.”
On the other hand, Michael Vaughan was far more provocative:
“Stokes is the engine of this England team, the guy who powers them. Not only does he contribute massively himself, he lifts the performances of those around him, inspiring, cajoling and driving up standards,” the former captain wrote in the UK Daily Telegraph.
“Crucially, he is also a player Australia fear. The scars he inflicted on them at Headingley two years ago will not have fully healed, and the sight of him walking out at Brisbane – or wherever he manages to play his first Test – will send a few shivers up local spines.”
I wonder if he thought about these words before he published them?
There’s no doubt England are a more confident team when Stokes plays, mostly because of the team balance an all-rounder brings.
It’s a tad worrying though when he not only has to do two jobs, bat and bowl, but also has to take on roles usually undertaken by captains, that is he “lifts the performances of those around him, inspiring, cajoling and driving up standards”.
I guess his absence also explains some of England’s recent results, after all if he’s not playing, who does these things?
The obvious Vaughan comment that will generate plenty of replies is about the Australian team fearing Stokes.
There’s no doubt Australia and rest of the Test world has plenty of respect for Stokes. On his day, he’s a world-class performer with bat and ball, who can also take some very handy catches in the slips.
In saying that, I can’t see why Australia will be fearful. He’s an okay batsman and an okay bowler at Test level who can do some very good things from time to time, but still averages under 40 with the bat and over 30 with the ball.
I also hardly think Stokes walking out to bat will send shivers up anyone’s spine, especially when this would be first time he’s batted in a Test in ten months or more.
If anything, I’d have thought Stokes would be the one having the shivers, given the weight of expectations being placed on his shoulders to perform.
Australia have a world-class attack, with Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood in very good form. By the time the Ashes rolls around, along with Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Jhye Richardson and Michael Neser, they would have plenty of overs under their belts and will be ready to go in Brisbane.
Stokes on the other hand, will have had net practice with the Lions squad and some warm up innings in the inter-squad practice matches, assuming of course weather doesn’t affect those.
That’s not a lot of cricket to fall back on when going out to bat in front of a friendly Australian crowd at the Gabba(toir), especially if England’s fragile batting order fails.
There’s an assumption Stokes will be fully fit, physically and mentally. I’ve already questioned whether he will be match fit for the first Test, especially if he has to bowl more than a handful of overs.
There’s also no guarantee his finger will hold up to batting in Tests conditions, especially in Brisbane, where the ball gets up far more than in England.
Then there’s the elephant in the room – Stokes’ mental state. His recent comments in the media seem to show a very upbeat person, extremely keen to get back playing and even keener to do well in the Ashes:
“I’m buzzing for the Ashes. Just buzzing,” he wrote for The Mirror.
“I do realise Australia is one of the toughest places to tour, but also one of the greatest places to tour. It is a special event in cricket and I want to help our team as best I can.
“I know what it is going to be like, especially the crowds, I’ve experienced it before and I say bring it on.”
Jimmy Anderson has urged Australian players to “keep it respectable”; that is, show some more respect with the verbal comments, but both players and fans will remember the reception dealt out to Dave Warner and Steve Smith when they toured England two years ago.
I doubt we’ll hear the same booing and other unsavoury comments, but I’m equally sure Stokes’ mental fortitude will be fully tested, as will the mental toughness of the rest of England’s players.
Ben Stokes says “bring it on”. There’ll be an Australian XI and thousands of fans more than happy to oblige.