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Why Ben Stokes' absence could fully wreck already-unstable England's team balance

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Ben Stokes' absence could prove to be series-defining

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Why Ben Stokes' absence could fully wreck already-unstable England's team balance

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Anirudh Suresh

08/01/2021

As if England didn’t have enough problems to contend with, already, heading into the five-Test series against India, they will now have to make do without their best Test cricketer.

Even prior to Stokes’ announcement, this English side was a hot mess. This was a side that was about to enter the series not knowing what its top-order was going to look like and who was going to fill the slot between Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler. Now, with the withdrawal of Stokes, the Three Lions have entered crisis territory even before a single ball has been bowled. 

Given the state of the current side, Stokes’ withdrawal should send the side into a full-blown crisis because, essentially, he has carried this unit for the past two years in the whites. Since 2019, his average of 45.00 is the highest among all English batsmen, but the gulf becomes wider at home. In the last two years in Test cricket in England, Stokes’ batting average of 58.07 is 15 more than any other English batsman. 

Why this number should ring an alarm bell for the hosts is because only one other batsman (Zak Crawley) averages over 37 in this time period, and he himself is currently struggling to buy a run, having averaged 10.25 across his past six Tests. Had this been an away series, perhaps Root’s presence would have provided some solace to the fans, but that the skipper himself averages 30.86 in his last 13 Tests in England should serve as a huge cause for concern. 

So not only will England enter the first Test at Trent Bridge not knowing who three of their top five batters will be, they will do so knowing that they will have to tackle Bumrah, Shami, Siraj, Ishant and Ashwin without their best batsman. It is like asking John Isner to play Novak Djokovic after taking his serve away from him.

But it will not just be Stokes’ batting that will be duly missed. Since 2020, he has averaged a quite ridiculous 21.20 with the ball. This number reduces to 14.36 at home but, really, more than the statistics, it is the preternatural impact that Stokes brings with the ball that simply cannot be replaced. He is a fifth-bowler, wicket-taker, partnership-breaker and enforcer all in one. And nobody knows this fact better than India, who were at the receiving end of his transcendence in the first Test at Edgbaston in 2018, where he ran through the visitors’ middle-order on the final day to hand the Three Lions a famous 31-run victory and set the tone for the rest of the series.

All this will be missed come August 4. England might not know what hit them. 

‘No Stokes’ will have grave consequences for England in both the batting and bowling departments but why his absence, particularly at home, could potentially derail the team is because it strips the side of balance, meaning they will have to compromise on the heterogeneity of the XI. The two-Tests against New Zealand showed how the absence of a Stokes-caliber all-rounder affects the entire dynamic of the side and it is something that the skipper himself acknowledged. 

“It’ll be a different challenge (to play without an all-rounder),” Root had said prior to the New Zealand Tests, and the challenge proved to be too arduous to conquer. 

Stokes’ presence, in Tests at home, allows Root to field Broad, Anderson, a third-seamer of choice and a spinner without compromising on batting depth and variety with the ball. It also gives England options. For instance, they can choose to promote Buttler to No.6 and even field a second all-rounder to bolster the bowling, something they did successfully in the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval in 2019. They can, of course, still implement the system but the absence of Stokes means that, in such a scenario, the batting will be depleted due to the replacement batsman - whoever it might be - being a downgrade on Stokes. 

To understand why the premier all-rounder’s absence will affect the Three Lions, come the first two Tests, it is worth looking at three different combinations England can field in the absence of Stokes, and evaluate each combination’s pros and cons. 

Combination 1

Play six specialist batsmen, Buttler at No.7 and field Curran and Robinson alongside Broad/Anderson

Pros: This combination is, without a shadow of a doubt, the strongest batting-oriented XI England can field. As the New Zealand Tests showed, batting remains England’s biggest concern but stacking the top with specialists, and loading up the lower-order with bowling all-rounders, will go a long way in ensuring the side puts out a decent total every time it bats. 

Cons: This combination will, however, render the bowling one-dimensional. The absence of a spinner or an express pacer will mean that Joe Root will have to solely rely on the conditions to aid the skills of Robinson, Curran, Broad and Anderson, something less than ideal. With this combination, there will be no room for Plan B. Spin will certainly play a big part across the five Tests, and England would know this too, having seen the impact Ajaz Patel had in the second Test at Edgbaston last month. With Leach also boasting an exceptional record both at home and against India, it might prove to be a blunder to leave out a specialist spinner. 

Combination 2

Push Jos Buttler to No.6, field both Curran and Robinson and leave room to field a spinner (or) Mark Wood

Pros: In terms of balance, this would probably be the most ideal XI England could field. This way, they have batting till No.8, while they also have the luxury of having a spinner - most likely Jack Leach - or a pacer that offers something different from the four aforementioned names (most likely Mark Wood). This will mean that England would have to choose between Pope and Lawrence for the No.5 spot. 

Cons: While on paper the batting looks strong and deep, that might not actually be the case. For a fragile batting unit like England, not having the insurance of an extra batsman will always be a big risk, particularly given the instability of the Top 5. Buttler might have been in the form of his life the last time he played Tests, but it is worth noting that the wicket-keeper batsman has not played any red-ball cricket in 7 months; he will, therefore, at least initially, be vulnerable. Curran at No.7 might still be a risk too, for 88% of his Test knocks, to date, have been at No.8 or below, with the southpaw having batted just thrice at No.7 (where he averages 11.25 with a high score of 17). Should they field this combination, England’s bowling might be well-rounded, but it will leave their batting open to raids from the visitors’ bowlers. 

Combination 3

Play six specialist batsmen, Buttler at No.7, one of Curran/Robinson alongside Broad and Anderson and field either Leach or Wood as the fourth bowler

Pros: This combination is essentially a mix of 1 and 2, meaning England get to play the extra batsman while also fielding a dynamic fourth bowling option (Leach or Wood). It will give the side a slight margin for error with the bat, particularly up top, while it will also give Root options with the ball. Though short on personnel, the bowling, in this case, will not be one-dimensional. 

Cons: This combination will lengthen the tail, and lower-order runs drying up will hurt England in the absence of Stokes. Ahead of the New Zealand Tests, Root spoke of the need for the lower-order to contribute valuable runs, but Broad, Anderson and Wood/Leach at 9, 10 and 11, though they are all more than capable of holding the bat, will not punch too many holes in the Indian bowling unit. Should England decide to field Leach, taking to the field with this combination will also increase the workload on Anderson and Broad, owing to there being only three seam-bowling options. As recently as the WTC Final, India paid the price for not fielding an extra seamer in the XI, so should indeed the spinner prove to be ineffective, a three-seamer strategy - two of whom are over the age of 35 - could come back to bite England. 

What the different combinations tell us

While each of the three aforementioned combinations consists of their own merits, what they do tell us is that without the presence of Ben Stokes, England simply cannot field a well-rounded XI that covers all bases. Over the years Stokes has delivered with both bat and ball for England, but what he has done is provide them the luxury of tinkering the XI based on conditions without losing balance, something they will not be able to do come to the first Test against India. Instability bothered the side even in Stokes’ presence, but now they will have to also deal with the imbalance. How efficiently and effectively they deal with it could very well decide the fate of the series. 

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