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Six items in Ben Stokes’ in-tray as he takes on the England Test captaincy

ben stokes captain
Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 4 minute read

Ben Stokes was named as England’s new Test captain on Thursday morning, taking over from Joe Root after the right-handed batter stepped down from the position earlier this month.

England’s talismanic all-rounder assumes the role with the Test side at a low ebb and just months on from his return to the fold after an extended period away from the game in 2021.

The task facing Stokes is an immensely challenging one – here are six items in his in-tray that’ll need addressing sooner rather than later.

Recall Broaderson?

The discarding of Stuart Broad and James Anderson was the major decision made prior to the last act of Root’s captaincy. Although their absence might not have made a difference to the final scoreline in the West Indies – it’s hard to know whether they would have forced results on two tedious surfaces in Antigua and Barbados, while the batting was to blame in Grenada – it was clear that England do not yet possess a queue of seamers ready to step up in their absence. Saqib Mahmood impressed in his first series as a Test cricketer, but Chris Woakes, Craig Overton and Matt Fisher weren’t incisive enough.

There was logic behind their exclusion – in fact, new England men’s managing director Rob Key didn’t object to it in his capacity as a pundit for Sky – but with new leadership, a decision needs to be made, and Stokes has already made up his mind. Speaking to his old employers on Thursday, Key confirmed that the pair would be available for selection for the first Test of the summer.

Who’s his vice?

Given Stokes’ recent injury record, the identity of his vice-captain will be important. The early suggestions are that there will not be a permanent appointment, especially in the initial stages of his tenure as captain, with so few spots sewn up in the XI. There are plenty of possible candidates, though few are that compelling. It’s not impossible that Root fulfils the role on a short-term basis while Broad, should he return to the XI, is another possibility. Jos Buttler – who has vice-captained England in the past – is not an outlandish suggestion either. Key recently praised Buttler’s ability to read the game and the wicketkeeper has a better Test record than his struggles in the 2021/22 Ashes suggested. Buttler averages more with the bat than Ben Foakes in Test cricket.

Arresting the slide

One of the defining traits of Root’s time as England captain was his side’s susceptibility to collapsing within a session. In the last six months alone, England have offered feeble resistance at Melbourne, Hobart and Grenada, and whether it’s down to personnel or collective mindset, ridding such an undesirable characteristic from the side as soon as possible is a must, however he manages it.

Brand of cricket

England have perhaps overthought the manner in which they have sought to play Test cricket over the past seven or so years. Trevor Bayliss was an advocate of a more attacking style of batting, drafting in white-ball openers to face the red and fielding a side packed with entertaining all-rounders capable of filling a multitude of roles. Chris Silverwood, on the other hand, looked to play a brand of attritional cricket; ‘bat long and contain’ was essentially the mantra.

Certain selections say something about the type of cricket you want your team to play. In the Caribbean, Joe Root picked Craig Overton and Jack Leach over Saqib Mahmood and Matt Parkinson at the start of the series; two reliable, steady operators over two wildcards capable of unlocking batting line-ups on the flattest of pitches while going for a few runs. It will be interesting to see which way Stokes goes now he’s the man in charge.

Relationship with the white-ball teams

The ECB are currently advertising for two head coaches, one to look after the Test side and another to preside over the white-ball teams. And with Eoin Morgan still in charge of the limited-overs sides, that means there will be two separate pairs looking after the men’s international sides. While there aren’t many all-format players at the moment for England, that could change in the future, and with a congested international calendar, there will be times where it will be impossible to simultaneously pick full-strength squads for both red- and white-ball cricket. It is a relationship that will need to be carefully managed.

Getting back to his best

The biggest boost this England team can gain in the short-term is a return to form for Stokes. Stokes was some distance away from his best during the Ashes but there were tentative signs that he was getting back to his best in the Caribbean. Captaincy has different effects on different players; it’s possible that biggest positive of handing Stokes the top job is that it has him firing once again.

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