Stokes had taken an indefinite break from cricket in July following the ODI series against Pakistan and the opening games of The Hundred. Stokes cited mental health issues, with ‘bubble fatigue’ the likely cause, following spending large amounts of time in bio-secure environments and undergoing hotel quarantines alongside giving his injured finger ample time to recover. His rushed comeback to lead the Covid ravaged England side shows he’s certainly not lacking commitment to representing his national team.
The announcement of his return was met with jubilation from England fans and no doubt with some worry from an Australian perspective, following his iconic Headingly innings in the 2019 Ashes. Stokes scored two centuries in the series, ending as England’s leading run scorer alongside picking up crucial wickets.
His inclusion offers great balance to England’s XI that had been lacking throughout this English summer, especially with Moeen Ali’s recent retirement from test matches. Ali was brought back into the fold against India to fill the all-rounder role vacated by Stokes and to supply Joe Root with a spin bowling option. Prior to Stokes’ return it was looking increasingly likely that England wouldn’t field a spinner in Australia. Therefore, the return of Stokes is good news for spinner Jack Leach, who would’ve been wondering if he’d be spending three months running drinks onto the field.
With Stokes' return unfortunately comes somebody else missing out for the first test at the Gabba. In England’s last test, it was Ollie Pope and Jonny Bairstow occupying the five and six slots, respectively. Jos Buttler is likely to come back in for Bairstow and Pope showed promise, scoring 81 in the first innings. Leach is likely to replace Ali, leaving Chris Woakes’ spot in jeopardy despite his excellent performances following his return to the side in the third test against India. Alternatively, England may bench the experienced Stuart Broad as they look to rotate their aging seamers.
During the 2017/18 Ashes Tour, England’s seam attack came under great scrutiny for lacking pace and nous in Australian conditions. Four right-arm, medium-fast bowlers didn’t make inroads into the Aussie batting line up and England were sent packing with a 4-0 series defeat.
Following injuries to Jofra Archer and Olly Stone, England are once again lacking pace. Mark Wood has looked good in foreign conditions, performing well in the West Indies and South Africa over the past few years; however, his injury record will place doubt in the minds of Root and Silverwood, especially since he has only been fit enough to make one appearance at the ongoing T20 World Cup, at the time of writing. This has made it a realistic proposition that England will be going in with the battery of right-arm medium pacers once again.
Stokes’ inclusion is sure to bolster both the batting and the bowling. He has produced the spells of fast, aggressive bowling needed to put the Australian batters under pressure. Behind Root, he is also England’s most capable batter with the toughness needed to win games down under. Whether Root and Stokes are enough to paper over the cracks in England’s creaky batting line up remains to be seen.
Possible XI at the Gabba:
Rory Burns, Haseeb Hameed, Dawid Malan, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope, Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood, Jack Leach, James Anderson.