England will miss inspiration of Stokes on and off the field
Root laments absence of a player who ‘sees things I don’t’ Buttler and Burns expected to step up into leadership roles
Life without Ben Stokes has not always been a problem for England. They have won the past three Tests Stokes has missed, two by an innings, and if they make it a fourth this week at the Ageas Bowl then it will deliver a first series victory over Pakistan for a decade.
Stokes leaves a big hole, of course, not just for his batting and bowling, both of which have rescued England this summer, but the off-field leadership he brings to the squad. They were a shadow of their usual selves when he missed the last Ashes tour and Joe Root used phrases like “huge loss for us” and “we’ll miss him dearly” when asked about his deputy heading back to New Zealand for personal reasons,
Others look up to him, want to emulate his will to win and many less-talented players will spend their retirement years talking about their time sharing a dressing room with Stokes, a little like Sir Ian Botham’s former colleagues do now. Since his Bristol court case, Stokes has embraced responsibility, learnt humility and how to better understand players not as good as him. He has become a crutch for some, including Jofra Archer, who used his newspaper column this week to pay tribute to Stokes, thanking him for checking up on him every evening during his five days of solitary confinement for breaking Covid restrictions.
It is notable that Archer produced his fiercest spell this summer when Stokes was in charge in Root’s absence for the first Test against West Indies. He also took the responsibility that week of telling Stuart Broad he was not playing, sitting down and explaining the reasons why. On the field it is the circle of three – keeper Jos Buttler, Root at first slip, Stokes at second – who run the team. Anderson and Broad are involved, too, but have to think about bowling first and foremost.
With Stokes absent, Buttler will take on more, stepping up as vicecaptain. Rory Burns, Surrey captain, will also be expected to chip in tactically. “He is someone who thinks outside the box. He looks at the game well and sees things I don’t,” said Root on Stokes.
“As a pair, between us we come up with different ideas, have options, and that’s a good place to be – you don’t want a yes man. Other than that, leading from the front. We know what an influence he is but for us to be the best side we can be, we now need more knowledge of what it’s like when he’s not there because there will be times when he’s injured or similar.”
Buttler’s work ethic is from the Stokes mould. Often they run
together around the outfield after play and Buttler has reacted to his poor keeping in Manchester by working with the Merlyn spin bowling machine, invented 15 years ago to combat Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan. Buttler has set it for left-handed batsmen, trying to correct a technical fault that caused his missed stumping and dropped catch off Shan Masood last week when he stood up to Dom Bess. What Merlyn cannot replicate is the hours of concentration needed to keep wicket. Buttler will have to solve that himself.
Root confirmed yesterday that Anderson would play, a wise tactic recognising a wounded legend can be very dangerous. It is a big week for Anderson. Broad has set the bar for old-timers with a point to prove. He cannot afford to have another poor game like he did in Manchester but the Ageas Bowl surface is green, suggesting Anderson and Broad have got what they wanted after being angry with a turning pitch last week.
It looks likely England will make only one change when the game starts today, with Zak Crawley replacing Stokes. A four-day Test last week helped, so did the fact England batted on the final day so the bowlers have had extra rest. Mark Wood has a “knock” according to Root and England are always reluctant to risk him when not 100 per cent fit. Jack Leach was not even named in the 14 so Bess keeps his place. Ollie Robinson may have to wait longer for a debut. If England win this week and wrap up the series, it will give them a chance to experiment next week with players such as Robinson, especially with Anderson and Broad due a rest.
Root clearly wants Archer to trust him saying he will “keep giving him opportunities to show off how good a player he is”.
Root is eyeing a seventh consecutive victory as captain, showing how quickly things have turned since he lost the first Test to New Zealand in November and looked vulnerable for the first time. His record of 23 wins is one short of Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss, and from considerably fewer matches. The fact Root has lost 15 Tests, four more than Strauss and Michael Vaughan, shows the problem of inconsistency and also recent result pitches in England.
Storms are forecast and the series is hotting up. Tempers were frayed in the first Test and Broad landed a fine. Aside from the jokes about his father, Chris, punishing him, it has left Broad in a serious position. He is now one demerit point from a ban. Pakistan, unlike West Indies, have five bowlers, so the workload was spread last week leaving them confident they can pick the same attack without running out of energy. All four Tests this summer have been absorbing affairs.
There is no reason to think that will change this week given both sides have clear frailties with the bat and strong bowling attacks.
Stokes’s absence will give Pakistan some extra belief, too.
England players used footballs to limber up during preparations for the second Test at the Ageas Bowl yesterday. Football matches were banned indefinitely by the management during the winter tour of South Africa after Rory Burns joined the list of those injured, following a tackle by Joe Root. The opener (top left) was among those showing off his skills yesterday before a net session, along with (from top) Mark Wood, Ollie Pope and Zak Crawley.
Fancy footwork – well, so much for the football ban