The loss of Ben Stokes from England’s Test side will first and foremost be felt on a personal level.
He is a hugely popular and admired figure within the dressing room, who commands enough respect to have been named stand-in captain for the first Test of the summer in Joe Root’s absence, and inspires those around him to new heights with his presence as well as his increasingly frequent acts of brilliance on the cricket field.
Of secondary concern, but still worth considering, is how England go about trying to make up for the loss of a player who is now considered among the best cricketers in the world. In one sense this might have saved Root a tough decision; Stokes had seemingly proved his bowling fitness on the third evening of the first Test against Pakistan by taking two crucial wickets, meaning there would be less reason to persist with playing five bowlers alongside Stokes.
For the second Test, England would have had to either keep Zak Crawley on the outer and field six bowlers, or leave out one of Chris Woakes, Stuart Broad, James Anderson, and Jofra Archer, all of whom have strong claims for inclusion, or leave out specialist spinner Dom Bess, who has too bowled creditably this summer. Now, unless England throw a curveball, Crawley will come back in at No.3 with Root shifting down to fill the No.4 role he is accustomed to and that Stokes had filled in the last two games.
However, they might do well to consider further tweaks, even if that could lead to a tough conversation. Stokes is not just a world-class all-rounder, but now up there with the very best batsman going too, and certainly at the moment England’s most prized wickets. Crawley, for all his promise, averages just 26.10 after six Tests, with a first-class average a tick over 30. England’s batting line-up will be significantly weakened by Stokes’ absence.
While there has been heartening improvement on that front in recent times, only Root, of England’s remaining players in the training group, has more than two Test centuries, and England may want to give themselves as much batting depth as possible. While it’s Ollie Robinson who was called up to England’s training group yesterday morning, presumably in anticipation of Stokes’ departure, it could well be Sam Curran who stands to benefit.
With Broad and Woakes having made themselves close to undroppable, that will most likely mean one of Archer or Anderson missing out – or both if England want to hand a debut to Robinson or see if Mark Wood can improve on his home travails. That either might not have been first-choice would have been unthinkable at the start of the summer.
The other option open to England is to effectively replace Stokes with two batsmen, and go into the second Test with four bowlers; a favoured balance in the Andy Flower/Andrew Strauss era. That could mean a debut for one of James Bracey or Dan Lawrence, or a recall for Ben Foakes, with Jos Buttler keeping his spot as a specialist batsman. The last option is an intriguing one, with Buttler copping flak for his glovework in the first Pakistan Test while also adding the most compelling evidence yet that he could be a Test batsman of note at No.6.
England could leave out Bess in this scenario, reasoning that any of the quicks would add more value than him, and that Root can capably fill the spin role for a Test or two. However, considering the recent fitness records of Archer, Anderson, and Wood in particular, England will likely be loathe to go in with a team that won’t allow them to keep their prize assets fresh.