The independent voice of cricket


The return of Ben Stokes means we’ve got a contest on our hands

by Taha Hashim 5 minute read

Taha Hashim reflects on the announcement that Ben Stokes is off to Australia.

It felt like it was coming. There was the injury update that showed him getting his fingers around the bat handle. There was a hit against throwdowns and a clip of him bowling too. And then, after all those teasers, there was the announcement: “I’m ready for Australia.”

After a successful second operation on his left index finger, Ben Stokes is back and he’ll be on the plane for the Ashes. Forget about the cricket for a second and this remains heartening news. Beyond his struggles with the finger, Stokes had taken a break from the game to take care of his mental well-being, explaining in his Daily Mirror column that he’d been “in a real dark place and having some difficult thoughts”. That he’s feeling better is great to hear.


What does this all mean for the Ashes? Well… England are still up against it. They’ve lost nine of their last 10 Tests in Australia and the hosts, even after their series defeat to India at the start of this year, can call upon batting giants (Labuschagne and Smith) and bowling phenoms (Cummins and Hazlewood). Even with Stokes in their line-up, England endured some torrid defeats in the subcontinent last winter. He can’t solve everything.

What he can do, however, is offer something very precious to the England fan who sets the alarm for midnight and gets up for the Gabba opener: hope. Stokes has it in him to win a match single-handedly and he’s done just that in the Ashes before. With the bat, Joe Root has had far too much to do on his own this year; the return of his close confidant to the middle order will help ease the burden. With the ball, Stokes’ ability to sustain a short-ball barrage and bowl those marathon I’m-not-leaving spells – he did that at Headingley too – will be vital during those sweltering days in the dirt. He can walk around, do handstands or whatever else he desires – just having him in the field will make England look so much more imposing.

There’s a feeling of order that comes with Stokes too. Beyond beefing up the middle order, his fifth-bowler role paves the way for England to use four quicks and a spinner. Without him during the home summer, they struggled to find the right template: a quartet of seamers meant there was no room for the tweak of Jack Leach. It wasn’t until Moeen Ali took up a spot at No.7 as a spin-bowling all-rounder that England found clarity. With Stokes in play, there’s greater leeway for a slow bowler to make his entry into the XI; ultimately, there’s the possibility of fielding a well-rounded side.

It does seem incredible to think that nearly eight years have passed since Stokes’ last Test appearance in Australia. Of course, Bristol meant he wasn’t around in 2017/18 – and how they missed him. Even when he was just a raw debutant in 2013/14, he impressed: a fourth-innings 120 on a cracked Perth pitch against Johnson and co. was followed by figures of 6-99 at Sydney. The sense was that a special 22-year-old, one who had emerged from the whitewash wreckage, would return four years later to lead the line alongside Root. It never happened, prompting a wait that has yet to end. Now comes the belated entry and time for all to see if Stokes can do what English cricket demands so fervently from its players: to pull off something truly special in Australia.

Of course, it could well be that the story remains the same. That England head over, stick to routine and watch Smith and his friends deliver thumping after thumping. Stokes will enter this tour having not played a competitive game since July, while Test cricket hasn’t seen him since March – it feels harsh to expect so much. But at the very least, for the time being, there’s a feeling that we’ve got something of a contest on our hands. That with the arrival of Stokes, there’s a bit more confusion in regards to the final scoreline. An Ashes series deserves great cricketers. It just added one more into the mix.

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