England captain Ben Stokes will be fit for the Ashes, says Brendon McCullum

Skipper: Ben Stokes  (Getty Images)
Skipper: Ben Stokes (Getty Images)

Brendon McCullum believes the upcoming Ashes series "is the script that Ben Stokes is waiting to write".

After a one-off Test against Ireland in June, England's next Test assignment is the blue-chip series against Australia. Until this point, McCullum and Co have been keen to not look too far ahead, but they are now allowing themselves to get excited.

"Now we have the opportunity to really start to plot and plan and turn our attention to what's going to be a pretty amazing time in the guys' lives," said England Test head coach McCullum. "An Ashes series at home against a good Australian side, so I think we'll go into it with a lot of confidence. We know they're a good side. We'll work out who wins.

"I hadn't thought about the Ashes, to be honest. Everyone talks about it and, obviously, you're going to be judged on your performance in the Ashes. But now I'm starting to go 'the next series is the Ashes; that's pretty cool'."

Insisting that England will stick to their all-guns-blazing style against the Aussies, of highest priority is the fitness of captain Stokes, whose long-standing knee complaint restricted him to just two overs in the Second Test against New Zealand here, with the all-rounder in visible pain during his innings on the final day yesterday.

Stokes was signed by Chennai Super Kings for £1.6million in the December IPL auction, with the tournament set to start on March 31. Stokes has insisted that despite the injury — for which he has had a diagnosis that he is not willing to reveal — he will take part in the IPL.

"I don't think he's jeopardising [his Ashes chances]," McCullum replied, as to whether Stokes was risking his fitness for this summer in order to fulfil his contract with CSK. "I know that Chennai set-up, actually I played in that franchise, and they're very good. They've got a very good medical team and he will be well looked after.

"He sees the big picture in everything, so I've no concerns that the skipper will be totally looked after, and I also believe that the Ashes is the script that he is waiting to write, so he'll be sweet."

Depending on everyone's fitness, England will face a major selection headache, with the return of Jonny Bairstow. McCullum said in December that there was "no doubt" that Bairstow would walk straight back into the team, but gave a slightly cooler response when asked again here.

"I haven't thought about the selection stuff as yet," McCullum said. "We have a very good group of players to pick from. There are a lot of quality players to get in the XI. There will be opportunities. What we can't do is try and crowbar people in. We need to take stock when the First Test arrives: what the fitness is like and how the guys are going, and we will make the call from there. One thing we are not afraid to do is be brave in selection."

The two players whose places are most under threat are Zak Crawley, who has averaged 25.19 as an opener, and wicketkeeper Ben Foakes, who has been excellent but represents the most like-for-like swap if Bairstow is to come back in. Despite this, McCullum was keen to throw his weight behind both players, describing Crawley as "a big player for us moving forward" and Foakes as "world-class."

Yesterday, England suffered a dramatic one-run defeat to New Zealand, as they tied the two-match series to finish off what has been a fantastic year for English cricket. Despite the result, McCullum described the match as "epic", in a response that is in keeping with the mentality that he and Stokes have brought in of prioritising entertainment over results, a method that had seen England win 10 of their 11 previous Tests before yesterday.

Reflecting on the result and the series outcome, McCullum said: "I know we came out on the wrong side of it — or the losing side of it — but in terms of what we set out to achieve at the start of the campaign as a side, I thought we certainly played our part in that.

"I think there will be millions — tens of millions of people — around the world that sat back and enjoyed that Test match.

"I know that we were always going to be judged on our results, but I think we achieved quite a bit throughout the series."