'I just want my friend to be ok': Joe Root throws full support behind Ben Stokes amid mental health concerns

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Joe Root and Ben Stokes playing for England - AFP
Joe Root and Ben Stokes playing for England - AFP

Joe Root was full of sympathy for Ben Stokes saying he just wants his “friend to be ok” but is once again left alone to prop up a faltering Test team without a player he called “Mr Incredible” 12 months ago.

There is a dark cloud over England this week at Trent Bridge with the Stokes news rocking them to the core and the continued distraction over arrangements for the Ashes tour.

They badly need a win over India to lift the mood and bring back some optimism in their Test cricket after three defeats in four matches to India and New Zealand.

Somehow Root has to rally spirits but you do wonder how much more fuel he himself has left in the tank after such a difficult 12 months. Bubble life, rest and rotation, defeats and poor performances, and the general feeling this team comes second in priorities to the one day side, have taken a toll. Now add Stokes, the superhero who usually rides to his team’s rescue, to the equation and it is a lot for Root to have on his shoulders, especially with four draining years in the job already behind him.

“From my point of view, I just want my friend to be OK. Anyone who knows Ben, he always puts other people in front of himself and first,” said Root. “Now is an opportunity for him to put himself first, to take time to look after himself and get to a good place again. Hopefully that can be sooner rather than later.

"Cricket has to be a secondary thought, a long way down the line, and he should take as much time as he needs. He’s got my full support on that and he’s been assured he’s got the full support of the ECB on that. And certainly, he’s got the whole team’s support. He’s got everyone behind him.”

Without Stokes by his side, Root is left to carry the batting but barely has any form of his own to call upon since his blistering start to 2021.

He averaged 114 in his first three Tests this year but in the 10 innings since it has dropped to 20 with a top score of 42.

The defeat to New Zealand was painful but was softened by the thought that rest and rotation would be over by now and Root would finally have his strongest team at his disposal for a marquee series. Instead real life has ruined best laid plans. He is without two senior allrounders in Stokes and Chris Woakes and two of the fast bowlers earmarked as Ashes weapons - Jofra Archer and Olly Stone.

Jofra Archer in action for England - POOL VIA REUTERS
Jofra Archer in action for England - POOL VIA REUTERS

There has been barely any first-class cricket in England for the young batsmen to build confidence and correct faults since the New Zealand series with the Blast and Hundred dominating schedules. Jos Buttler faces India this week having not faced a red ball since a Test match in Chennai in February.

Root decided to bring his press conference forward by 24 hours in order to clear his mind and concentrate on his batting on Tuesday as he makes the final preparations for playing India.

It is a small sign that Root has acknowledged the pressure he is under as he enters ten Tests - five now and five in Australia - that will define his captaincy.

Root and Chris Silverwood had carefully plotted a route to Australia over 18 months from October 2019 but the pandemic has laid waste to those plans. The players are still living a bubble life - even if they don’t use that term anymore - and Telegraph Sport revealed the white ball tour to Bangladesh looks set to be postponed for covid reasons.

James Anderson and Stuart Broad have fine records at Trent Bridge and produced some of English cricket’s most memorable moments in recent years on this ground so dropping either would be a big call in a week when England have lost Stokes and need experienced heads around.

Ollie Pope looks to be fit after a thigh injury leaving it a choice between him and Dan Lawrence at five, if England pick five bowlers. With Buttler at six that would mean Sam Curran batting at seven and Ollie Robinson at eight, the theory being the two allrounders add batting depth.

“We have a lot of things to consider,” said Root. “Balancing the side with Ben not being there is one of the things that will take a lot of the thinking and we will be one of the challenges we want to get right on this ground in these conditions.”.

India have had their own plans disrupted. Opener Mayank Agarwal is out of the first Test with concussion after being hit on the head in the nets on Monday.

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