The importance of Ben Stokes to England’s Ashes campaign can scarcely be overstated and so the all-rounder’s first outing in the middle for four months was a significant moment for Joe Root’s men as they prepare for next week’s first Test at the Gabba.
Stokes makes England’s strongest XI as a batter alone but when fit to send down his brawny fast-medium he offers a balance that is the envy of most opponents. On their first full day of cricket on tour – technically day three of their final warm-up match against the Lions – figures of two for 31 from 10 overs were therefore encouraging.
A scorecard that saw the understudies close on 226 for four from 78 overs at the Ian Healy Oval in Brisbane (with three players also retiring) was secondary to the news that Stokes reported no ill effects after a protracted spell out for mental health reasons and finger surgery that can only have softened him physically.
As such the wickets of Zak Crawley, caught at leg-gully for a top score of 45, and Chris Woakes, a regulation edge to first slip, were a bonus, even if the former was keen to talk up a performance that could only be watched as potted highlights online owing to Cricket Australia’s disappointing decision not to permit a live stream.
“It’s great having Ben back,” Crawley said after stumps. “He has been bowling nicely and batting well in the nets. He makes a massive impact on this group just being here and there is no doubt he will play a big part in the Ashes.
“It’s hard to know [if he was bowling at 100% pace] as I have not faced Ben too much but it felt pretty decent to me. He got me out, so I hope he was bowling at full pelt.”
Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ollie Robinson also got precious miles into their legs thanks to the heavy rains of the La Niña weather system finally relenting – Anderson’s late spell of reverse swing was noted by those present – while Jack Leach twirled away for 18 overs on a pitch that Crawley described as batter-friendly in the main.
Overlooked all summer, Leach is the likely beneficiary if Stokes is able to play as a fully fledged all-rounder. But according to Broad, who is heading into his eighth Ashes series, the benefits of a return for Root’s vice-captain go beyond this. “We know what an influential player he is on the field but there’s a bit of fear factor with the Australians and him,” Broad told the Round the Wicket podcast. “The balance of the side is really important but I think the emotional side is more important for us.
“We know he’s a warrior, we know he’s a fighter and will stand up when times get tough. To win in Australia, yes, you need runs and wickets but you have to front up in tough times.”
There were points during the recent summer when England talked down the prospect of a return for Stokes this winter and it was not until scar tissue was removed from the left index finger he first broke back in April that the prognosis changed. According to Stokes, this was a case of a switch being flicked rather than a protracted decision.
Stokes said: “I wasn’t ever going to force coming back. I remember the day when I thought: ‘I’m ready to come back, I’m going to start getting my body ready for Australia.’
“I made the phone calls to the people who needed to know what’s going on in my head, and started from there. It wasn’t like: ‘I’m not sure,’ thinking about it for a few days. It was a spur of the moment: ‘I want to get back into it now.’”
The comeback does create a logjam in the middle order, however, and though England have said the deployment of Woakes and Mark Wood in the Lions attack relates to their recent emergence from quarantine after the T20 World Cup, Jonny Bairstow making the first XI ahead of Ollie Pope suggests he is favourite for the No 6 spot.
Pope did get a bat on Thursday, making 27 before falling to Root’s off-breaks, and top-scored with 81 in England’s most recent Test, against India at the Oval. But Bairstow was down to play ahead of the Surrey man in the abandoned series finale at Old Trafford that followed and it may be this apparent pecking order holds sway.