Few cricketers have had such a tremendous impact on their team the kind Ben Stokes has had on England over the years. After all, the explosive English all-rounder has almost single-handedly won countless games for his team across formats and is one of the best in the business today.
The 26-year-old has prodigious talent and with every season, he has been taking rapid strides towards establishing himself as the finest all-rounder out there today. In just four years in international cricket, the burly Englishman has 9 international hundreds, 4,200 runs and 158 wickets across formats. More than these numbers, though, what makes Stokes special is his ability to take the game from the scruff of its neck and turn it around. He is fearless and dominant. He is a match-winner and a game changer. And that is what makes him special. He is a player that England was banking on to turn the tables on Australia in the upcoming Ashes. But, unfortunately, that will not be the case now.
Ben Stokes’ abrupt suspension – courtesy his alleged brawl outside a Bristol nightclub in September this year – has put the English camp in a real dilemma. After much drama, the ECB has ruled out his participation in the all-important Test series Down Under. This is a body blow to England’s chances and how exactly they cope with this colossal loss will be known in time.
The thing is, Ben Stokes was being seen as England’s savior for this Ashes. Former England captain Michael Vaughan had even gone on to say that Stokes is a ‘freak’ and can produce magic. “For England to go to Australia and win, Stokes will have to have a special series. Not only is he important with bat and ball, but also his body language,” Vaughan was quoted as saying to a website earlier this year.
He does make a valid point. Stokes is easily the third best batsman in England’s Test unit and relishes those fast and bouncy pitches which he would have found in Australia; a case in point would be his incredible 258 off 198 balls against South Africa last year at Cape Town. As a bowler, too, Stokes is improving steadily and it was his superb spell of 6-22 against the West Indies in the Test match at Lord’s that helped set up a series clinching win recently.
The absence of a powerhouse performer like that will surely pinch England as they ready themselves for an uphill challenge. To add to this, England has been further pushed back by injuries to key players like Moeen Ali, Steven Finn and Jake Ball. Pre-tour injuries to Toby Roland-Jones and Mark Wood had made matters worse already.But all hills have bends; England must, therefore, strive to find one.
Now the question is how will England withstand this loss? Is the Ashes already over for them? None other than the great West Indian batsman Viv Richards concurs to the same and was quoted saying, “without Stokesy the English team is going to look like kittens”.
So how will England fare? Should we discount them?
Don’t write England off just yet
One feels that despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them, it is imprudent to write England off. Not yet, anyway.
Under astute-thinker Joe Root, England has been in pretty good form of late; they won two Test series at home – against South Africa and West Indies. There are some pretty neat players in their lineup who have it in them to make a big impression in Australia. Aside from the captain himself who remains their best batsman, England will be looking up to Alistair Cook with his wealth of experience and Johnny Bairstow to strengthen the middle-order. The latter, in fact, is fresh from two splendid ODI hundreds – 141* at Southampton and 100* at Manchester – against the West Indies in September. While his Test average is a decent 39.77, Bairstow can really be an important part for England this Ashes if given the right opportunities. He will be England’s wicketkeeper over the next two months and as a sturdy batsman can also be a vital cog in their middle-order.
Cook, meanwhile, has had a good couple of Test series and the 243 against West Indies at Birmingham and the solid 88 against South Africa at The Oval earlier this year would have really helped boost his confidence.
Mark Stoneman, who will be partnering Cook as an opener this Ashes, has a tall task ahead of him. The left-handed Durham opener has been pretty impressive in the practice games registering scores of 61, 51, and 85. If he can translate that success into the Test series then a lot of burden would be off Root’s shoulders.
Stokes’ replacement, Chris Woakes, is a jolly good addition. While he may not be as potent a strength as some of their main quickies, England’s star all-rounder can surely can pack a punch- both with the bat and the ball. In 18 Tests, Woakes has 50 wickets and has also carved three half-centuries. Clearly, he can be effective. But will he when the time arrives?
A looming question surrounds Jimmy Anderson akin to an albatross around a travellers’ neck. Could this be the last Ashes in Australia for England’s champion seam bowler? In the absence of Stokes, the responsibility simply doubles.
Its that simple a math.
Anderson has had a fairly good run in Australia – 43 wickets in 13 Tests – and would have to bowl out of his skin to make sure that England stay in the hunt. With his bowling partner Stuart Broad suffering from indifferent form of late, the onus would be on Anderson once again to lead the England bowling charge. Where slow pitches like Adelaide are concerned, lack of assistance shouldn’t wary him.
It’s interesting to note that the man with 506 Test wickets and 24 five-wicket hauls does not have a single five-for in Australia. Perhaps it is the lack of swing on those hard surfaces that nullify Anderson’s effectiveness. However, at the fag-end of his career at present, Anderson will have to find a way to make things click in this Ashes. For if he doesn’t, it can all go downhill pretty soon for England. How exactly Anderson copes with this insurmountable pressure will be quite intriguing to watch this Ashes.
England have their task cut out
This might well turn out to be a repeat of Ashes 2013-14 where the trio of Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle had bulldozed the visiting English side to hand them a 5-0 drubbing. It was humiliating. It was unprecedented; time to turn the tables is now.
The current Australian bowling lineup has the likes of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins. Given the stunning form Starc has exhibited of late – taking a hat-trick in each innings for New South Wales against Western Australia recently – England are in for a real trial by fire.
Another thing that goes against the visitors is that Joe Root is still at a nascent stage of captaincy, having led the country in just 7 Tests. It will require a gargantuan effort from him to cope with the losses already suffered and get the best out his men. Perhaps his biggest challenge would be to eke out wickets when the ball stops moving on the hard pitches there.
The fact they are already being written off, perhaps, might work in England’s favour.
It would serve them good if they can take some inspiration from Andrew Strauss’ visiting side in the successful 2010-11 Ashes campaign to retain the urn. A lot of planning will need to be done and a lot of players would have to play out of their skins for England to come out of this Ashes unscathed. It will be difficult but definitely achievable.
Here’s hoping that one gets to see a cracking Ashes devoid of one-sided contests. Must it be said, the cricket world and the 5-day format desperately need a good series to boost things up. An intensely fought Ashes might just be the kind of balm that could soothe the insufferable woes wrought by repetitive ODIs.