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England captain Ben Stokes says ruthless selection calls made with Ashes in mind

Captain Ben Stokes made England’s priority crystal clear on Wednesday (Steven Paston/PA)
Captain Ben Stokes made England’s priority crystal clear on Wednesday (Steven Paston/PA)

Ben Stokes has started England’s Ashes countdown, admitting ruthless selection decisions had to be taken to build a side that can win in Australia.

England are still 18 months away from their next tour Down Under but, if there was any doubt about the top priority of Stokes’ captaincy, he removed it on the eve of the summer’s first Test against the West Indies.

Wednesday’s game at Lord’s marks a watershed moment in Stokes’ reign, with 41-year-old James Anderson making a farewell appearance after a record-breaking run of 187 Tests and 700 wickets.

But that is not the only significant change forced through by a leadership group comprising Stokes, head coach Brendon McCullum and director of cricket Rob Key.

Jonny Bairstow has been dropped after exactly 100 caps, with wicketkeeper Ben Foakes also overlooked and Jack Leach axed as first-choice spinner.

England are instead taking a calculated gamble on the future. Debutant Jamie Smith takes the gloves having been identified primarily for his batting prowess, fellow newcomer Gus Atkinson gets a chance to audition for a role in the new-look seam attack and Shoaib Bashir replaces Leach, despite being unable to oust him at county level with Somerset.

And Stokes made clear that the revamp has taken place with one main goal in mind: defeating the old enemy for the first time since 2015.

“Look at where we’ve got to go in 18 months’ time, to Australia. We want to win that urn back,” he said.

“We don’t want to be standing still. I want to keep making this team push themselves as hard as they possibly can.

“I think it’s been five months since we played a Test match – that’s a lot of time to think about how you can take the team forward. I’ve been captain now for two years, so for me it’s about progressing this team.

“I don’t think ‘reboot’ is the right word for what we’ve done, but when you’re in a position where you’ve got to make decisions, it solely comes down to what we think is best for the team.

“You sometimes have to put personal relationships and things to the side. There’ll be some decisions I’m sure people might not understand or might be frustrated by and that’s something that I’m absolutely fine with and completely understand.

“I don’t want to say I’m stubborn, but one thing I’m very clear on is that I know that these decisions are best for the team, from my point of view, and that comes with responsibility of being a captain.”

Shoaib Bashir prepares to bowl during an England nets session at Lord's on Tuesday
Stokes talked up the potential of 20-year-old Shoaib Bashir, pictured (Steven Paston/PA)

Stokes paid glowing tribute to the outgoing Anderson, describing him as “the whole package” and “an incredible ambassador for fast bowling”, but was equally keen to talk up some of the newer faces in the dressing room.

Both Smith and Bashir have been fast-tracked quicker at international level than they have been in domestic cricket, but Stokes is undeterred about following his instincts with the pair.

“In an ideal world, you’d love for the players that you’ve picked in the Test team to also be playing those roles back for their counties,” he said.

“But come (Wednesday), come the rest of the week and the rest of the summer, out there (on the pitch) is where it’s going to count.

“We give everyone the freedom to go out and express themselves, whether they’ve had a lot of cricket on their back or not.

“Jamie and Bash are here, obviously in a different role than what they have been doing for the counties, but I don’t see that being too much of an issue because they’re both class players.

“We’re very, very excited by what Jamie can offer to us and this team. He fits in perfectly with everything that we want and he’s deserved his place by runs alone, I think.

“Bash is 6ft 4in and has a lot of individual traits that we feel that we can bring out. He’s got a very high ceiling and with more games under his belt we’re going to have a seriously, seriously good bowler on our hands.”