It is generally true that everybody hates Mondays. But last week, it wasn’t quite everybody. Because for England cricket fans, this Monday was a day with cause for rejoicing. A brisk autumnal morning brought with it jubilant news that few saw coming but which all with any association with English cricket had longingly yearned for. Stokesy’s back!
After taking a break from all cricket for mental health and injury reasons, England’s free-hitting, miracle-making, game-changing ginger talisman declared himself ‘ready for Australia’ against all the odds. And in doing so, he might well have saved England from embarrassment at the hands of the Aussies in their homeland this winter.
Before Monday the mood-music surrounding England in the lead up to this year’s Ashes series had not been pleasant. The predicted absence of Jofra Archer and Olly Stone through injury, men both capable of bowling in excess of 90mph, left the rest of England’s pace-bowling options looking distinctly one-paced.
England’s underwhelming performances against New Zealand and India this summer, meanwhile, only served to intensify focus and criticism of England’s top-order batsmen.
Captain Joe Root seemed to be carrying England’s batting on his shoulders alone. When England announced their squad in early October, former captain Nasser Hussain lamented its predictability and labelled the series “a daunting prospect” for England. Without Stokes and what he brings to the side, Hussain went on, “it will be a nightmare”.
Well, what exactly does Stokes bring to the side other than his obvious potential for a breath-taking performance of Headingly ilk every now and again? In one word: balance.
As a cricketer with all-round calibre Stokes offers the best of both worlds. There is no doubt he is a world-class batsman who is at home high up in the batting order, but he is also a match-winning enforcer who has the capability to bowl teams into the ground.
His crucial wickets which forced victory for England on the fifth day of the second Test against South Africa in Cape Town in January 2020 are testament to this fact. But such utility is worth more than just the performances it can often yield.
Stokes’ Janus-like cricketing identity gives Root the ability to pick a multi-faceted five-man bowling attack without sacrificing a batsman and creating a long tail.
Stokes single-handedly makes England a far more well-rounded side and, as a result, his availability completely changes the complexion of the Ashes. No longer does England’s bowling look as one-paced, nor England’s batting completely reliant on Root.
A Stokes-less England are spineless as this summer’s defeats, and England’s disappointing 0-4 series loss down under in 2017 for which Stokes was absent due to circumstances surrounding his trial for affray.
England with Stokes in their ranks are a completely different animal. Paul Farbrace, England’s former assistant coach, says Ben Stokes will “galvanise” the tourists this winter and went on to say “I think it has really tipped it into being a fantastic series.”
The Aussies seem to agree. Stokes’ presence should be enough to strike fear in the strongest of hearts that bleed Baggy Green after what he subjected them to in the summer of 2019.
Shane Warne commented that Stokes’ return was “great news for the Ashes will give Root and his England team a huge boost as Stokes has the rare ability to inspire his teammates on the pitch in the heat of battle”. Whilst Brad Haddin tweeted, “And now let the theatre begin… the one thing Ben Stokes does not just with his presence on the field with bat and ball, but he makes guys around him better players. That’s what I’m excited about. This England team now will grow a leg”.
With Stokes on the plane the Ashes appear to be competitive again, just when it seemed fears about England’s ability to compete on the hard pitches of Australia were taking hold.
Stokes’ return to action is a timely boost for Root’s England. But in blowing away the clouds of English pessimism, it also allows followers of English cricket to make a more realistic assessment of the competition.
Like England, the Aussies are not in great nick coming into this series. Tim Paine, their captain is still recovering from neck surgery, and they haven’t played a Test match since the start of this year when they were humiliated by India at their self-proclaimed Gabba fortress.
Rust might well be expected. After the retirement of James Pattinson, they only have four reliable bowlers (Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitch Starc, and Nathan Lyon) with little room for rotation. Whilst apart from the ‘big three’ of Steve Smith, Marnus Labuschagne, and David Warner, Australia’s batting looks as fragile as England’s. And whether Warner merits a place on that list, given he was ripped to shreds by Stuart Broad last time round, remains to be seen.
With Ben Stokes and his X-factor back in the side, and the Aussies at their weakest since perhaps England’s tour of 2010/12, there is reason to believe that England might just have a fighting chance. Famous last words, eh…
Image: Ben Sutherland via flickr