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Having been out of all cricket for three months to manage a finger injury and his mental health, and having only played four of England’s last 14 Tests for all sorts of reasons, Ben Stokes would be on the plane.
The news brought sighs of relief. First, that Stokes felt up to playing again after a tumultuous few years led to a tormented few months. Second, that an English great would get a crack at the Ashes in Australia while in his prime.
He had missed one, aged 26, because he got himself in trouble. It would have been a desperate shame if he missed another, aged 30, because he was troubled. He performed well in Australia on debut in 2013-14, and could return a veteran in 2025, but this was his last chance as the totem.
With his vice-captain back, few sighs were deeper than Joe Root’s. The presence of his premier all-rounder would balance his side, allow him to select a spinner and share the batting load. Stuart Broad described the news as the best text he received all year.
“We know he’s an influential player, but there’s a bit of fear factor with the Australians and him,” Broad said. “Things he’s done in the past, Headingley 2019. For us, the balance of the side and everything he gives is really important, but the emotional side and the leadership in the group is more important. You know he’s a warrior, he’s going to stand up when times get tough.”
A month since England’s arrival, this has been a strange Ashes tour. There has been little cricket, because of unseasonal weather. The dominant narratives have been discrimination and unsavoury pictures. The two squads are in a state few outsiders can enter and have been separated by a T20 World Cup. As a result, no one really knows what is going on. Who is in form? Who has niggles? How is Stokes?
It is tricky to gauge what to expect from Stokes. From May 2019 until he returned to New Zealand for his father Ged’s final months in his battle with a brain tumour in August 2020, Stokes was the world’s best cricketer, putting in immortal performances at Lord’s, Headingley and Cape Town, and making outstanding hundreds at Lord’s, Port Elizabeth and Old Trafford.
A bit has happened since then. Early this year, after his father’s death and time in bubbles to which he is so ill-suited, he was solid, if unspectacular. The finger injury he sustained at the IPL was brutal and was expected by England to be “career changing”. His rare appearances this summer came in significant pain, first when duty called for covid-ravaged England, then in the Hundred, when he looked all at sea. It all made more sense when his indefinite break was announced.
Stokes’s break was unusual. He spent time with his young family and set up a business. His engagement with the game was limited: a phone call to team-mates here, a congratulatory tweet there. He did not pick up a bat or ball for months. There was no single, dominant problem, but a build-up of a few. There were darker moments.
Sportspeople have short careers and are rarely afforded time away from their game with no targeted return. Stokes’s break really was indefinite, in that it was not certain he would return.
A second operation in October changed things. The ability to grip a bat helped Stokes’s mind. His problems had not evaporated, but an outlet had returned. That he said on his podcast that he decided to return “in the spur of the moment” neatly distils his character.
Stokes believes the depth of his break has helped his return. He spoke this week about dreading the soreness after his first training back, only to find “I’ve never felt so fresh”.
Around Stokes, little happens quietly — and so it has proved here, even with England tucked away. When the tourists arrived, he suffered worst with jet-lag. Last week, alone in his hotel room, he thought he was dying when almost choking on a pill. A couple of hours later, he thought he had broken his arm when hit in the nets.
And in the team’s only practice cricket over the last two days, he has been the standout player, with ball, then bat. Only a handful of people have watched England’s warm-up, but those who did said he was also the most vocal presence on show.
In 10 overs on Thursday, he picked up the wickets of Zak Crawley and Chris Woakes. Crawley was caught at leg-gully in a plan England might just be readying for Steve Smith; Woakes was caught at first slip off a hooping beauty. Today, Stokes made a 56-ball 42 before retiring to give others a go. These performances obviously need to be taken in context, but they do little to temper expectations.
With so little practice and so long out, it might be unreasonable to expect Stokes to hit the heights of 2019 again, or even be the series-changing presence predicted on October 25. But on the limited evidence available, we can at least hope.