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What Ben Stokes’ absence means for England’s Test team to face India

What Ben Stokes' Absence Means For England's Test Team To Face India
Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

Ben Gardner looks at what Ben Stokes’ withdrawal from England’s Test squad to face India means for Joe Root’s team.

There are, of course, much more serious implications and consequences of Ben Stokes’ indefinite break from cricket, The Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated and exacerbated an existing problem, with the game’s top players forced into maintaining an uncompromising calendar which gets more compressed by the week, in bio-bubbles that make proper relaxation impossible, all set to the background of a generational plague.

Stokes is to be commended for putting himself and his family first, as are the ECB for curating an environment in which he feels comfortable to do so. Hopefully this is the nudge the sport’s stakeholders need for a radical reimagining of what is reasonable to expect of their players. Given the IPL will be restarted five days after the India series ends, and conclude two days before the T20 World Cup starts, that’s probably optimistic, however.

Even if it is a minor consideration in context, there are repercussions for England’s Test team, who start their five-match encounter against an India side who know they will never get a better chance to confirm their greatness next week. Joe Root’s team are, at least, familiar with life without Stokes, having coped without him at the end of last summer, the beginning of last winter, and the start of this season too. Their record without him is mixed, with two draws against Pakistan, two wins against Sri Lanka, and a series defeat against New Zealand which marked the end of a proud stretch of seven years without a home reversal in that time.

Against the Black Caps, it was Jack Leach who paid the price for the extra reshuffling required when a two-in-one player is absent, with England opting for extra batting depth at the expense of a weakened bowling attack. Leach has played very little for England at home – just five times in all, an unjust amount considering in his last appearance, he bowled his team to an Ashes-sealing victory at The Oval – but it’s not a given that that run will continue.

In that New Zealand rubber, England were hampered by the absence not just of Stokes, but of their other all-round options too, with Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, and Sam Curran all rested after returning from the IPL. With Jos Buttler also on leave, England were further weakened in the batting department.

This time, the option of Curran slotting in at seven with Ollie Robinson at No.8 would give England enough depth to pick a spinner, though given Chris Silverwood’s tendency to eschew a slow bowler, and the brittleness of England’s top six – excluding Root, and assuming Bairstow is unselected, they will have between just six and eight Test hundreds combined – there is still the possibility they could stick with four quicks, and rely on the part-time tweak of Root and Dan Lawrence.

The other sub-plot is the identity of Stokes’ replacement. While Craig Overton is an improved cricketer since his first stint in England’s Test side, it’s hard not to feel saddened by Moeen’s continued absence. The last two times India have visited England, he has been instrumental to the hosts’ success, taking 19 wickets at 23 in 2014, including a maiden five-for in the series-leveller at Old Trafford, while in 2018, with India having stormed back into contention at Trent Bridge, his nine wickets on recall at Southampton gave England an unassailable 3-1 lead.

That marked the start of a fruitful period for Moeen, and across the next 12 months, no bowler claimed more Test wickets. But after a poor showing in the first Test of the 2019 Ashes, he was dropped, and was harshly axed from England’s Test contract list soon after. Moeen “fell out of love” with Test cricket and has been only a peripheral figure since.

The handling of the aftermath of his last appearance in whites to date, when he was England’s top run-scorer and wicket-taker against India at Chennai, was similarly muddled, as he was asked to forgo a pre-agreed period of rest on the eve of his departure from the tour. He justifiably refused, and now here we are. While England attempt to compete with one of the world’s best Test teams at Trent Bridge and Lord’s, Moeen will be leading Birmingham Phoenix in The Hundred.

The ECB’s understanding and sympathy in the handling of one of their world-class all-rounders is to be credited, but they themselves are partly to blame that they can’t replace him with another.

Possible XI: Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley/Haseeb Hameed, Joe Root, Ollie Pope/Dan Lawrence, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Ollie Robinson, Stuart Broad, Jack Leach, James Anderson.

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