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What do England do if Ben Stokes misses the next Test?

What Do England Do If Ben Stokes Misses The Next Test?
Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read

Ben Stokes is feeling unwell. He has missed training today. The third Test against New Zealand starts on Thursday. This is not a drill.

Or maybe it is. Stokes has tested negative for Covid-19. England hope he’ll be able to complete the pre-match formalities tomorrow. There is still every chance he’ll be tossing up with Kane Williamson (also just recovered from illness) in two days’ time.

Still, we’ve all had illnesses where we’ve felt we’re just getting over the hump before waking up the next day feeling as bad as ever. Not for the first time, and surely not the last, England find themselves asking, ‘What on earth would we do without Ben Stokes?’ If nothing else, it’s a useful thought-experiment, and a valuable reminder of Stokes’ all-consuming, ever-increasing value too. Now, you don’t just have to replace Ben Stokes the cricketer. You have to replace Ben Stokes the captain as well, the one who has been part of the leadership group that has turned around an entire nation’s attitude to a centuries-old sport in a matter of weeks. Good luck.

Let’s take replacing Ben Stokes the cricketer first, and because there isn’t really another all-rounder like him in the world, there also isn’t one in England’s squad. Harry Brook is the back-up batter, with Craig Overton and Jamie Overton the back-up bowlers. Brook is a player England fans have been desperate to see. Possessing a pseudo-Stokesian aggression and in a dead rubber (no, England aren’t making the World Test Championship final), could now be the perfect time to unleash him?

The Devonian twins, meanwhile, would each be a place high at No.7 and No.8, but both would also be upgrades on England’s tail-enders so far this series. Each would bring something to the attack, Craig an entirely English seam and swing excellence, and Jamie an entirely un-English pace and fire. While Stokes hasn’t had much impact with the ball so far, taking three wickets at 65, the overs he has bowled – 49.4 of them so far – will need to come from somewhere. Only Joe Root is available as a part-time option in the top order, and with James Anderson and Stuart Broad both needing to be managed carefully, and Matt Potts set for his ninth first-class game of the season if he plays, going with the same attack without any bolstering could be reckless.

Brendon McCullum, of course, isn’t afraid of going all-in, but picking either of Brook or an Overton in Stokes’ place would represent a different kind of statement, a gauntlet thrown to one half of England’s line-up. Either: You six batters go out and get us our runs. Or: You four bowlers go out and get us our wickets.

The other call, perhaps the bravest of all, would be for McCullum to look at his squad and concede that neither option comes close to making up for Stokes’ absence. Moeen Ali is unretired and seemingly on the phone with McCullum more than a uni fresher with their home-town squeeze. Amsterdam is just a short plane ride – or a slightly longer train ride – away. And when Stokes was missing last summer, England quickly realised that only Moeen comes close when it comes to balancing the side. Could Moeen swap one victorious England side for another, take the place of Jack Leach, and allow one or both Overtons to come in and make up for the rest of the difference in batting? Probably not, but it’s OK to dream.

The captaincy question is even trickier. If it feels like we’ve already had this discussion, that’s because we have, only a few months hence. Then, after Root’s resignation, we fretted that it couldn’t possibly be Stokes while also, in the back of our minds, knowing that it really had to be Stokes. Because beyond him, who is there? There’s Stuart Broad, full-time T20I captain about a decade ago, Anderson, with the ultimate respect of the dressing room, Alex Lees, with Yorkshire and England Lions leadership experience, Jonny Bairstow, a senior player just off the back of the innings of his life.

Or there’s Root. He’s already got the blazer, and he wears it well. Australia had no qualms about returning to former captain Steve Smith when Pat Cummins tested positive for Covid-19 during last winter’s Ashes, and if we know anything about England, it’s that they will rarely pass up an opportunity to ape anything the Aussies do. There could scarcely be more difference between the England Root took to the West Indies and the England that rocked up at Lord’s, but it’s hardly as if Root is a risk-averse character by nature, and with McCullum calling the shots from the balcony, that new ebullience shouldn’t disappear in an instant.

One last hurrah, at the start of the new regime, in front of his home fans, with a series secured and his status as the best Test batter on the planet reaffirmed. If it comes to it, it could be the captaincy send-off Root deserves. But England will be desperately hoping it doesn’t.

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