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The Ashes: Joe Root’s ‘bad cop’ Ben Stokes must deliver to restore England pride with final Tests a free shot

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  • Ben Stokes
    Ben Stokes
    Cricketer (born 1991)
  • Joe Root
    Joe Root
    English cricketer (born 1990)
  • Mitchell Starc
    Mitchell Starc
    Australian cricketer
  • Dawid Malan
    Dawid Malan
    English cricketer (born 1987)

Late on what should have been day four of the Melbourne Test, the ICC revealed that Mitchell Starc, the wonderful Australia fast bowler, had “nudged ahead” of Ben Stokes in their rankings for Test all-rounders.

It drew a smile, partly because it was a reminder of the rough edges of the rankings — particularly the all-rounder category — but partly because it seemed to tell a story of this Ashes series so far.

Starc leads the wicket-taking charts with 14 and has 117 runs — more than any Englishman but Joe Root and Dawid Malan. Carded at No9, he has piled pain on tired English bowlers. Not bad for a player many in Australia think should not make the team.

Stokes has been Test cricket’s leading seam-bowling all-rounder in recent years and, when he announced he would end his hiatus to tour Australia, he was billed as a saviour. It has not quite gone to plan. With the bat, he is averaging 17, at a strike-rate of 31. With the ball, it is 62, at an economy of five.

That contrasts starkly with Stokes’s record before 2021, and his long break for injury and mental health management. In 47 matches from 2016 to 2020, his batting average was 42 and bowling 27.6. In the most recent two of those five years, his batting average was 50: as they say in these parts, elite numbers.

Stokes’s game in Australia has been characterised by the sort of rustiness you might expect from a player who arrived without any meaningful warm-up cricket following four months out, who has also played just four of the last 14 Tests in a tricky period personally.

There was the infamous overstep in Brisbane, as well as a horribly loose upper cut when set — and so important — in Melbourne. It is obvious we expected too much, too soon.

Stokes has looked a different batter. Since the summer of 2020, he has been working on having a more pronounced trigger movement and open stance, which he believes helps him play the ball later, under his eyes.

This is all part of the journey from hard-hitting all-rounder to senior, responsible batter that Stokes has been on in recent years. But here he has been a little two-paced: block or biff. He is good at both, but his natural game is somewhere in between. In his brief second innings at Melbourne, he looked to be finding that balance before being bowled by, you guessed it, Starc.

England need the old Stokes, or at least something resembling him, back promptly. In 2021, a year everyone connected with the side were glad to see the back of, their over-reliance on Root’s runs was gross. The grizzly statistics — 54 ducks, extras as third top-scorer, nine defeats — are well worn by now.

While no player has enhanced their reputation on this tour — perhaps not even Malan, who has performed admirably — Stokes’s struggles have had the greatest dent on their hopes.

Ben Stokes has struggled since his return to the England fold (Getty Images)
Ben Stokes has struggled since his return to the England fold (Getty Images)

After three Tests, the time for feeling his way back is over. This week, he has appeared calm and comfortable, a man on a mission. In training yesterday, he took the attack to Dom Bess and Dan Lawrence’s spin, sending a shower of sixes into the SCG stands. Graham Thorpe, the acting head coach, seemed to sense something was stirring when he described Stokes as a “caged tiger”.

While England are in a desperate position, in many ways, these two remaining Tests represent a free shot. The series and their World Test Championship hopes are gone, and expectation has never been lower. Half the coaches are absent with Covid, giving training an old-school feel.

The players have had to take charge, and they appear to have relished doing so. Almost all partners and children have gone home, tired of the brutal testing regime. While their presence is important, their departure means a slightly more equal changing room (not all had families on tour), and a tighter-knit group.

This week, Stokes has spoken out in support of his great friend Root, distancing himself from his status as captain-in-waiting. And behind the scenes, as he always has been, he is at the heart of everything, whether speaking up in team meetings about cricket or Covid regulations. He remains the perfect ‘bad cop’ for Root.

Root appreciated Stokes going into bat for him. The captain would be more appreciative still if Stokes went into bat, and stayed there for a few hours.

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