England have been given a major boost by Ben Stokes declaring himself ready for a return to competitive action after an extended break, with the talismanic all-rounder instantly added to the Ashes squad.
Stokes has prioritised his mental wellbeing in recent months and allowed a left index finger injury to fully heal, meaning he missed the marquee Test series against India in the summer while he is absent from the T20 World Cup.
However, with the news the 30-year-old is set to travel to Australia with the Test specialists and supplementary Lions squad on November 4, the PA news agency looks at what that could mean for England’s Ashes hopes Down Under.
How big is this?
It is huge news. Stokes was a titanic presence in the two nations’ last meeting in 2019. While Australia headed back home with the urn Stokes was the difference between a drawn series and an outright loss. He was England’s leading run-scorer with 441 at an average of 55.12 including an unforgettable century at Headingley which lifted Joe Root’s side to a highly unlikely victory. Three of Stokes’ 10 Test hundreds have come against the oldest enemy as well as two of his four career five-wicket hauls. Australia, quite simply, bring out the best in Stokes.
So, are England going to win the Ashes now?
Steady on. This is a massive fillip for captain Root and head coach Chris Silverwood but Australia on home soil will still be overwhelming favourites to retain the urn. England have already had to recalibrate their plans to fight fire with fire as injuries to Jofra Archer and Olly Stone have left Mark Wood as the only pace bowler capable of bowling in excess of 90mph. England once again are relying on a core of fast-medium seamers and an unconvincing, if largely unproven, batting line-up although the inclusion of Stokes immediately adds some ballast.
What can Stokes do to help England’s cause?
Moeen Ali’s Test retirement has left England short on all-rounders so Stokes will add some much-needed balance, allowing them to select five bowlers without compromising their batting. If anything, Stokes improves their line-up as he is widely regarded as England’s second best batter behind Joe Root. It seems likely he will take his spot as vice-captain once again and do not underestimate his presence in the dressing room. The New Zealand-born Cumbrian is a natural born leader and has shown in the past he can drag those along with him through deed alone.
Should we expect too much of him?
It is a fair point that any excitement surrounding his return this winter must be tempered. Stokes has not played competitively since July 26 and England’s first Test is not scheduled to start until December 8 in Brisbane. While Stokes will spend a lot of time in the nets and out in the middle in a couple of practice matches against the best bowlers this country has to offer, instant success on his return is not guaranteed. It should also be noted he has not played an international match in any format in Australia in seven years – he was controversially overlooked for the 2015 World Cup and then axed from the 2017-18 Ashes group following his arrest outside a Bristol nightclub.
But England have more of a chance now?
It is fair to say England will be happier with this news than Australia. But for many cricket fans – on both sides – it will be a welcome development to see someone happy to play again after a rough past few months. It has, in truth, been a difficult year or so for Stokes. He had a period of compassionate leave between August and October 2020 to spend time with his father Ged, who died last December, while he has been dealing with a finger issue since first fracturing it at the Indian Premier League in April. A comeback was aborted in July, with one of the factors being lingering pain, and England made it clear they were placing no pressure on Stokes on a return date. But a second round of surgery earlier this month put the wheels in motion and here we are.
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