Stokes, who suffered a badly broken finger at the IPL in April, missed the entirety of England’s summer Test campaigns against New Zealand and India, and withdrew from all cricket to focus on his recovery, and manage his mental health, shortly after standing in as captain in an ODI series against Pakistan in July, following a Covid outbreak in England’s original squad.
However, he underwent a secondary operation last month, to remove scar tissue that had been hindering the flexibility in his left index finger, and soon afterwards he stated on social media that he was able to grip his bat properly for the first time in months. A successful return to the nets has since followed, and with that weight on his mind lifted, Root is confident that the Stokes of old won’t be far behind.
“Obviously, it’s massive news,” Root said on the eve of the Test specialists’ departure. “Speak to anyone within the game, whether they’d prefer to have Ben in their team or not, and everyone would say they would. On a personal level, I’m just absolutely thrilled that he’s in a place where he can get back playing and enjoy the sport once again.
“Although we all know what Ben is capable of, we’re still managing expectations,” Root added. “He’s been out of the game a long time, he’s had a serious injury and he’s got a lot of work to do to get himself back to the Ben Stokes we all know. But if there’s one thing we can bet on with Ben it’s that he’ll do everything he can to ready himself and then put in performances that help England win games of cricket.”
Speaking to Sky Sports News, Stokes attempted to downplay his own importance to England’s prospects. “A team in cricket is 11 players, plus the extended squad and all the backroom staff, so I know that one player doesn’t make a team,” he said. “I know that I’m a senior member of that team over the last few years [but] every member of that team is just as important as each other. We all play different roles and everyone is capable of winning that match by themselves.”
Already, however, the simple fact of Stokes’ inclusion has transformed the dynamics of the England squad, with a second world-class batter now set to feature alongside Root in the top five, while his vital status as a frontline seamer means that England will be better placed to accommodate a specialist spinner, a problematic selection once again following Moeen Ali’s retirement from Test cricket last month.
Stokes has a proven track record in both disciplines in Australia, having made a brilliant maiden Test century at Perth and taken six first-innings wickets at Sydney during England’s 5-0 whitewash in 2013-14. He missed the subsequent campaign in the wake of the nightclub incident at Bristol in September 2017, but his stunning century in England’s one-wicket win at Headingley in 2019 is more recent proof of the impact he can have on any given Ashes contest.
“He’s a massive asset in many respects,” Root said. “First and foremost, his performances on the field, especially what he has done against Australia in the recent past. But also the way that he plays his cricket. Look at where we are going: we are going to have periods of play where it’s going to be very challenging. We’re going have to have people stick their hands up and grab the game – he is someone who will always do that.
“He’ll lead from the front in that respect, he is a brilliant leader in the dressing room and people follow him. They look at how he works, how he practices, how he goes about his cricket. And they all want to go along with him.
“That’s a great trait to have, along with being capable of performing how he does. It’s a huge boost for balancing side as well, as he has done for such a long time now. Everything about the way he goes about things is going to be great for us.”
Root himself will be travelling with huge expectations too, following a stellar run of Test form in 2021, in which he has amassed 1455 runs at 66.13, including six centuries. And given that Australia’s hard and true pitches are among the best in the world for batting, he knows the onus will be on all of England’s top-order to knuckle down and deliver the consistent first-innings scores that set England up for their most recent away Ashes win in 2010-11.
“The most important thing is weight of runs,” Root said. “To be successful there generally sides have to make big scores and you have to manage that well. That comes down to the responsibility of all the batters. You have to separate the mentality of what might be a good score in English conditions and understand the hard work and different challenges [posed by] Australian wickets and that environment.
Root himself has already stated that he is “desperate” to improve his Test record in Australia, a venue where he has yet to make a hundred, and where has suffered defeat in eight of his nine matches across two tours in 2013-14 and 2017-18. But he believes he is more in command of the mental side of his game this time around, and is gunning to “stamp his mark” as his predecessor Alastair Cook did with 766 runs in that 2010-11 win.
“I probably wanted it too much, I was too desperate, and it had probably a negative impact on the way I played,” he said of his previous tours. “I put too much pressure on myself, and I think one of the things that has really helped me this year is stripping a little of that back, really going and enjoying my cricket, and my batting, and I have a bit more clarity and understanding of my own game.
“One thing I have got coming into this series is a lot more evidence and information on those conditions than the last two tours. That will stand me in good stead as well. And making sure we are fully prepared for what we are coming up against. Australia’s attack has been very similar for a long period of time now, there’s a lot of information and knowledge that we can prepare ourselves for ahead of the series if we put that work and practice in, and making sure that we are ready to face and counter whatever’s thrown at us.”
Despite Eoin Morgan’s claim that England’s crushing victory over Australia at the T20 World Cup would have no bearing “whatsoever” on the Ashes, Root added that the confidence taken by England’s multi-format players – in particular their two star performers in that contest, Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes – was bound to feed into their preparations for the Test series.
“You have to try and lean on that confidence and performance the T20 side put in the other night,” he said. “There will be guys from both teams involved in that series and I suppose you want to try and capture as much confidence going into that series as much as you can.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket