Stokes hasn’t played Test cricket since England’s tour of India earlier this year, having taken an extended break from the game to manage his mental health and to recover from a badly broken finger sustained during the Indian Premier League. He was originally expected to play no part in this winter’s Ashes, having not been named in England’s original squad, but could no play a full part in the series after being added to the touring party.
Stokes has tended to bat at No.5 and No.6 for England, with Dawid Malan expected to reprise the No.3 role he filled during England’s Test series against India. However, there have been calls from some for Stokes to bat at first-drop, something he has only done once at Test level, against West Indies in 2019. He is rated as one of England’s most technically secure players of pace bowling, with batting increasingly his most important suit.
Harmison explained how, in his view, before the addition of Stokes to the squad, England’s plan would have been to pick six batters and a battery of seamers, without a specialist spinner in the XI.
“My XI would be probably completely different to the England XI that is going to go out at Brisbane on December 8,” Harmison said. “I would pick Ben Stokes, and look at him as batsman only at this minute in time. I think England have come with a definite plan before they left the British Isle, or when they were planning to leave the British Isles – that no Ben Stokes in the squad meant, I thought they are going to go with four seamers, out and out seamers, pick their four best bowlers.
“Stick the ball one side of wicket, and really bore into submission the Australian team, and go with four continuum bowlers, whom you can rely and hang your hat on. I’m thinking of [Ollie] Robinson, [Chris] Woakes, [Stuart] Broad, and [James] Anderson, and if you think you need a bit of an injection up your ass, then you can go with [Mark] Wood. But I only expected England to play four seamers, with six batsmen and Buttler at seven.”
Harmison explained how his desire to have both Ollie Pope and Jonny Bairstow at Nos. 5 and 6 influenced his desire to promote Stokes, with the two expected to vie for one slot in England’s middle order.
“At this moment in time, I would pick Ben Stokes as batsman only, which would get me Ollie Pope in the team, and Jonny Bairstow in the team,” Harmison said. “I’ll pick Ben Stokes as a No.3 batsman. His technique is good enough, he hasn’t played a lot of cricket but a lot of other players have played a lot of cricket in recent times. His batting is spot on, his temperament is perfect for the battle in the cauldron of what Brisbane is going to be.”
According to Harmison, Stokes could play more of a part with the ball as the series progresses.
“For me I’ll pick him at No.3, and then as the series goes on, if he starts to bowl and bowls well, then I can think of picking him as the fourth seamer along with a spinner in the group. But no question, Ben Stokes comes out first up in the first XI at Brisbane, he has to because the nature of character of the guy, you need a battle-hardened, aggressive, in-your-face character to go hard at Australia.
“All I am trying to say is I am not going to look at him as my fourth seamer. Because I think what will happen, and I guarantee you this will happen, England will pick a spinner and Stokes as fourth seamer. What I am saying, at this minute in time, the preparation and the lay-off Ben has had will have more effect on his bowling than batting. He’ll get up to speed a lot quicker with his batting than bowling. If he becomes number four seamer, and you have a spinner then all of a sudden you have England picking three seamers and two half-bowlers really.”