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Ashes 2023

Ben Stokes opening in the Ashes is a plan just crazy enough to work

Ben Stokes
Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 4 minute read

Ever since Harry Brook made himself undroppable over the winter, England have had a conundrum: how do they fit Jonny Bairstow back into their Test XI?

Bairstow enjoyed one of the most extraordinary streaks ever seen in the Test arena last summer, scoring 589 runs from 578 balls in a ridiculous five-innings streak. If he’s fit, which he now is, he surely plays. As does Harry Brook after his breathtaking entrance to Test cricket – four hundreds in five Tests over the winter, again, he’s in.

The issue is that both Brook and Bairstow have done the bulk of their recent good work at No.5. To fit them both in involves a fudge, with varying degrees of creativity available. Going through the rest of the England top seven, there are a few other undroppables. Ben Stokes and Joe Root will obviously play, leaving three spots to fill in the top seven.


Ollie Pope has been a revelation at No. 3 under Ben Stokes, averaging a tick under 40 in a position where he’d never previously batted in first-class cricket and where England have struggled to fill in recent times. Up top, Ben Duckett is also presumably a lock in after averaging more than 55 over the winter.

That leaves Ben Foakes and Zak Crawley. For me it’s not that close. Foakes averages nearly 40 with the bat under Stokes’ leadership, complements the players around him in the line-up and is the best gloveman available. The discourse around Crawley is often ugly and too simplistic; he is clearly capable of playing innings against high-class bowling in a way that very few players in England can. But those innings have been too fleeting and my concern would be his recent record in home Tests in particular; he averaged 23 opening the batting last summer and just 9.00 in 2021. That famous 267 is now nearly three years ago.

So that leaves; Duckett, Pope, Root, Brook, Bairstow, Stokes and Foakes. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that Duckett is the sole regular opener in that group. So, who should partner him against the new ball?

Root’s done the job in an Ashes before but that was a decade ago and he is too important at four to dare mess with. Some have suggested that Bairstow should open to minimise the tinkering with a middle order that worked so well over the winter but his success in the middle order was so extreme last summer that I wouldn’t want to change anything; he should be batting at five without the gloves. Others have suggested that Brook could open. It’s a job he’s done before in first-class cricket but for the same reason why I’m leaving Bairstow untouched in the middle order, I’m leaving Brook around where he’s been so dangerous in the early stages of his Test career.

That basically leaves Stokes, the one middle-order player in the Stokes era we’ve not really seen fulfill their potential as a pure batter. Stokes is technically sound and has long been mooted as a potential No.3. But with England embracing a new, positive and attacking brand of cricket, who better to set the tone and lead from the front than their talismanic captain? In his marathon spells with the ball, like against South Africa at Old Trafford, he has previous for putting himself through the most difficult jobs for the sake of the team.

And there’s a precedent for an aggressive middle-order captain making the move up in the mould of his coach Brendon McCullum. McCullum opened the batting for almost a fifth of his Test career, doing the job effectively when there weren’t two standout candidates for the job. Stokes is cut from the same cloth as McCullum; is it really that far-fetched to imagine Stokes opening in England’s hour of need, moving up to ensure that his teammates are best placed to thrive at the possible expense of his own game? It’s the kind of self-sacrifice that has marked his captaincy so far. Every solution to the Bairstow Question involves some sort of fudge. Maybe this is the one that makes most sense.

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