Tom Harrison admitted recently he had given up trying to guess the next bombshell to hit English cricket and it is fair to say the withdrawal of Ben Stokes from the marquee series of the summer – five Tests against the might of India – qualifies as such.
The chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board was speaking about the threat Covid-19 poses to the summer and though details of the mental health issue that, along with a finger injury, has led Stokes to rule himself out indefinitely are understandably light, the pandemic can only have been a contributing factor.
Certainly it throws the England team into a degree of turmoil, in terms of the immediate challenge of India and looking forward to a winter with both a T20 World Cup and an Ashes tour. This four-month stint on the road is generating angst behind the scenes and a desire among players to have families join them in Australia will only increase after seeing a seemingly impervious colleague call for time out.
Their reaction to the loss of both England’s heartbeat in the dressing room and a keystone all-rounder on the field has typically been one of unwavering support, as was the case when Stokes missed the second half of last summer to be with his father, Ged, in New Zealand before he died from brain cancer in December.
That loss, combined with 18 months of bubble life, a four-year rollercoaster in the spotlight and a recent return to captain the one-day side despite carrying an injury, meant Friday’s news was not a total shock. Despite talk of unpredictable challenges being thrown up by the pandemic, the potential effects on the mental health of individuals has long been flagged up.
It leaves captain Joe Root and Chris Silverwood, the head coach, once again struggling to balance their team as they steel it for the task of five Tests in six weeks starting at Trent Bridge on Wednesday. Chris Woakes usually steps up here, but a bruised heel caused by the softening effects of isolation periods sees him yet to return to bowling and though the second Test was his initial target, the third in Leeds from 25 August is now the best-case prognosis. Sam Curran is back but would be a risk at No 7.
This was meant to be the first time this year that Silverwood had furnished Root with a full-strength squad, the Test team having previously been the poor relation to the white-ball setup during a spell of rest and rotation. England have already selected 21 players for Test cricket in 2021 and though they started out by winning 2-0 in Sri Lanka, chastening defeats in India (3-1) and then at home to New Zealand (1-0) followed.
Instead the pair are without two proven all-rounders in Stokes and Woakes – the former also offering significant ballast to the middle order – while Jofra Archer’s full return after elbow surgery remains weeks away and Olly Stone, his fellow quick, is out for the rest of the summer with a stress fracture. Jos Buttler at least returns behind the stumps and will step up as vice-captain, but this does not solve the problems further up the order.
Home advantage helps England but they need only cast minds back to India’s last visit in 2018 to know the size of the task at hand. Root’s men prevailed 4-1 but this came by seizing the clutch moments, be it Stokes with the ball at Edgbaston, Woakes’s maiden Test century at Lord’s, Moeen Ali’s bountiful return in Southampton or Curran’s run of swashbuckling cameos; the series could easily have swung 3-2 the other way.
India have hardened up significantly during the intervening time too, travelling to Australia twice and winning both times. The second series win, completed with a storming of the Gabba in January, was both a triumph of their depth – 20 players were deployed in four Tests – and an emphatic response to suggestions the first in 2018-19 owed much to the suspensions of Steve Smith and David Warner.
These two away wins certainly feel more instructive than the drubbing they handed England at home back in February and March, when the pitches became a challenge for batsmen once Root had powered his side into a 1-0 lead and Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel spun an inescapable web. Unless another heatwave occurs, seamers are likely to be the chief threat with the Dukes ball in the coming weeks.
Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami, Ishant Sharma and a cast of understudies ensure Virat Kohli’s men should hold their own here, even if the decisions to overlook the swing of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Hardik Pandya, the all-rounder who set up their win at Trent Bridge in 2018, look strange to English eyes. For England the burden falls on Stuart Broad, 35, and Jimmy Anderson, 39, to deliver, even if the emergence of Ollie Robinson and Mark Wood’s increasing hardiness offers support here.
India are also a wounded animal, five weeks having passed since they lost that memorable World Test Championship final to New Zealand in Southampton. The question now is how they emerge from a mid-tour break. Preparation has once again been limited to one warmup for a series that starts the WTC’s next cycle, although England don’t have an abundance of recent red-ball cricket under their belts either.
Both batting lineups will be challenged by this, while for the seam attacks it will be a case of getting up to speed and then trying to physically cope with the quick turnarounds between fixtures. For everyone involved it will be a case of negotiating a restricted lifestyle once more and it may even be that Stokes is not the last to step away.