It has been some time since Ben Stokes was a regular in England’s ODI side, but not because the star, who plays his last game in the format at Durham today, was not worth a place.
Since the 2019 World Cup, he has dropped in and out when the schedule and his health has allowed. But at no stage was there a suggestion that he would not be in the best side, or back for the 2023 World Cup.
That was until his selfless retirement yesterday. He could easily have settled for the status quo, cruised to the World Cup dipping in and out. Now, starting on Friday at Old Trafford in the second match of the series against South Africa, they must work out how to replace him for good.
Upon Eoin Morgan’s retirement, Stokes (below, lifting the World Cup in 2019) became a top-four batter, and a valuable left-handed one at that. He was also a handy bowler who would fill in (he had bowled his full allocation of 10 overs just once since January 2017 but often took vital wickets), a brilliant fielder, leader and sharp tactical mind. In short: near-impossible to replace.
Morgan and Stokes’s retirement is an indication that the seasoned team of 2019 is breaking up. For almost three years after the seminal tournament, Liam Plunkett was the only casualty.
Now Morgan and Stokes are gone, Chris Woakes, Jofra Archer and Mark Wood are long-term bowling absentees and some of the batters’ form is waning. Stokes is 31 and was actually the second-youngest player in England’s XI for the final three years ago, although the field is crowded, with seven of the team born between 1989 and 1991.
Replacing players in ODI cricket is harder than it once was. England’s next best white-ball cricketers no longer play the format, because the Royal London Cup is a mere undercard for the Hundred. Having made his name in T20 cricket, 20-year-old Will Smeed, the destructive Somerset opener, made his List A debut last week, representing England Lions. There is no longer a 50-over pathway. It is all action in the powerplay and at the death, no boring middle overs.
Liam Livingstone, a key man in the post-Stokes era, is a symptom of this. He has shown flashes of his abundant ODI potential, but has also struggled to structure innings, having lived on a diet of short-form cricket. There are also conditioning questions for T20 specialists, because 100 overs is a long day of cricket.
England will have decisions to make on how they structure their side post-Stokes, but Livingstone joining Moeen Ali as a spin-bowling all-rounder in the top seven is helpful. In most conditions (especially India, where the World Cup takes place), the overs they offer mean England can consider going exclusively for a batter.
The frontrunners for that role would be Phil Salt, who would need to be stationed in the top three, and Harry Brook, who has been banging down the door in red- and white-ball cricket. Neither of those are as experienced as Sam Billings or James Vince, curiously out of favour, flexible 31-year-olds who have both shown improvement since the World Cup, and county captains who have led their sides to white-ball titles in the past two summers. Zak Crawley or Ollie Pope could become options, too. Moving Jos Buttler much higher than No5 might give England a top-heavy feel, so a No4 is probably the ideal spot. Do England need a left-hander? Especially with Morgan gone, that helps bring awkwardness for attacks.
Dawid Malan leads the field if so but is also a top-three specialist, which might require Joe Root to drop down a spot and give the middle order a slightly one-paced feel. Ben Duckett is the other southpaw option; he has been around for a long time, has a large range of strokes and is not limited in batting position. Another left-handed option would be Sam Curran. He would beef up the bowling but put the batting at risk, especially if Livingstone continued to flay away from the No6 spot.
Curran would be a strong bowling option, and his best innings for England — 95 not out from 83 balls in India last year — came in an ODI, albeit down at No8. His batting, in Championship and T20 cricket for Surrey this year, has been excellent, but this would be a major job and he would have to be used well.
Whichever way they shape it, Stokes is more than one cricketer to replace.