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After the frustration of just 29 overs across five days, England finally took the field for some meaningful Ashes preparation with Ben Stokes picking up two wickets in his first appearance since July.
The Ashes are just six days away, so England desperately needed the clouds to part in Brisbane, which they duly did, allowing a full day’s play. It was originally hoped that this would be a first-class fixture, but England are having to make do after four successive washed out days of practice cricket.
An England XI (of 13 players) took on a Lions XI (also 13), made up of a mixture of players in the main and shadow squads. England chose to bowl, in order to get miles in the legs of the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
As the Lions XI reached 226 for four (with three more batters retiring) from 78 overs on a flat pitch, both senior men went wicketless, as did Ollie Robinson and Jack Leach, both of whom are likely to be in the attack at the Gabba on Wednesday.
But Stokes, who has played no cricket since July 26 after a break for a finger injury and to manage his mental wellbeing, picked up two wickets, bowling with aggression. He dismissed Zak Crawley, who top-scored with 45, caught at leg-gully, and Chris Woakes, caught at first slip, in his 10 overs.
“It’s great having Ben back,” said Crawley. “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 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.”
England are being careful with Stokes. He did not field in the slips, as he usually does, to manage his finger injury, and he spent time off the field in the middle session receiving a massage. He returned to the field to bowl again.
Stokes, England’s talisman, revealed on Thursday that he made the decision to end his hiatus and tour Australia in “the spur of the moment”.
“I wasn’t ever going to force coming back. I wanted to come back because I wanted to,” he said on the Round the Wicket podcast. “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 ‘not sure, thinking about it for a few days’. It was spur of the moment, ‘I want to get back into it now’.”
Crawley believes England’s other bowlers will have also benefited from the workout on a damp outfield that “will feel like two days in the dirt for them in the morning”.
“There was not a lot on offer for them as it was a nice pitch to bat on but they bowled really well and they will benefit I’m sure from getting overs in their legs,” he said.
“I did not see many of the lads taking it easy. I think they got a lot out of today and it has been nice just to get in because we thought we would not play today when we saw the forecast.”
While Crawley might have advanced his case for a place in the top three by batting through a wicketless morning session with Lions skipper Alex Lees, Ollie Pope will feel he missed an opportunity.
Jonny Bairstow was set to be selected ahead of Pope for the final Test match of the summer (the postponed fixture against India at Old Trafford), and appears to be in the box seat to start this series, too. That is despite Pope’s 81 at the Oval against India, and superior preparation on this tour, with Bairstow only just out of quarantine.
Pope made 27, before being dismissed by skipper Joe Root, who had come on to complete an over by Saqib Mahmood, who left the field (but was later cleared of injury).
The weather is set fair on Friday, meaning England’s batters should get some time in the middle, too. That is due to be the last of England’s preparatory action for the series and, given club cricket is taking place across Brisbane this weekend, they are struggling to find a facility to extend the match.