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Stokes' brave calls and bowling return herald start of England's evolution

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Published in Cricket
Tuesday, 09 July 2024 08:11
Ben Stokes is excited to put his knee troubles behind him and reprise his role as an allrounder when England's Test summer begins at Lord's on Wednesday.
The first Test against West Indies will see England step into a new era with James Anderson retiring after his 188th cap. The XI also features two debutants in wicketkeeper Jamie Smith and fast bowler Gus Atkinson, while Shoaib Bashir will play his first home Test.

The transition from Anderson will not be smooth. But it will be eased by Stokes now fully recovered from a left knee issue that hindered his ability to offer a fourth seam option over the last two years.

His operation in November was a success and he was free from pain during the India tour at the start of the year. Stokes ended up bowling ahead of schedule in the final Test at Dharamshala, removing Rohit Sharma with his first ball for his 199th career dismissal.

Having opted out of T20 World Cup selection to build up his bowling loads with Durham, Stokes managed 89.1 overs across three County Championship matches, taking 18 wickets at 18.83. Now as fit as he has been in the last five years, he is relishing the prospect of bringing back the balance he used to offer with bat and ball.

"I'm sitting here now being able to say that I can play that full role that I had been doing over the first eight to 10 years," Stokes said on Tuesday. "The last two years have been tough with the knee problems that I've had. But I've done everything right to get myself to where I am now and I'm very excited to finally be able to go out on the park and not have to worry about how things are going to feel in my body.

"The surgery for me was the easy part. It was then what I did after that to get me back to where I am today. I've worked incredibly hard back at Durham with all the coaches and had a lot of great support."

A return to the allrounder of old will coincide with Stokes adopting a new perspective as captain. Along with Test coach Brendon McCullum, Stokes has swapped the 'be where your feet are' mantra which underpinned his first two years in charge for a more forward-thinking approach towards the next Ashes tour of Australia. That, ultimately, prompted the move to retire Anderson, who will be 43 by the 2025/26 winter.

Stokes' record of 14 wins from 23 Tests since assuming the captaincy remains sound. But following the 4-1 defeat in India, the last four months have featured plenty of introspection about how the team must evolve.

"When you have a lot of time off you've got a lot of time to think about how you can take the team forward," he said. "I've been captain now for two years so, for me, it's about progressing this team. And we've been a team, especially in the first two years, very focused on the here and now on what we need to do.

"There'll be some decisions I'm sure that people might not understand or might be frustrated by."

Stokes accepts that his captaincy will not always be popular

"I want to be able to implement stuff to push this team as far as they can go, not only as a team collective but also as individuals. And you look at where we've got to go in 18 months' time, to Australia: we want to win that urn back.

"We've got an incredibly talented and exciting group of young fast bowlers coming through at the moment, so giving them the experience of playing international cricket, getting Test matches under their belt, will put us in a much stronger position to hopefully go out and win the Ashes."

The selections of Smith and Bashir reflect the scale of such future planning. Smith will take the gloves despite the fact he is Surrey's second-choice wicketkeeper behind England's previous incumbent, Ben Foakes. Similarly, Bashir had to move on loan to Worcestershire last month because Jack Leach - the man he has overtaken - is Somerset's main spinner.

"I know he's been batting higher up the order for Surrey, but we're very, very excited by what Jamie can offer to us in this team," Stokes said of Smith, who has 677 Championship runs for the Division One leaders this season at a strike rate of 76.67. "He fits in perfectly with everything that we want down at No.7 for us, and he's deserved his place by runs alone."

While Bashir has only managed six dismissals at 76.83 in the Championship, England are keen to give him more international exposure after a strong impression in India where he took 17 wickets across three appearances, including his first two five-wicket hauls in first-class cricket.

"When you're picking a squad and you've got one spinner, we had to make a decision on what we thought offered us the most amount of variety," Stokes said. "Bash is 6ft4in and he's got a lot of individual traits that we feel that we can bring out. Bash has a very high ceiling and just has a lot of talent we feel like the more games he plays, the more he gets under his belt, we're going to get a seriously good bowler on our hands."

Stokes appreciates those decisions, especially the enforced retirement of Anderson, will raise eyebrows. But he is under no doubt it is his duty as captain to grasp the nettle on such tough calls that he hopes will eventually leave the team in a better place.

"There's always going to be decisions that are hard ones to make. But that's a responsibility that you take on as captain or as a leader. You sometimes have to put personal relationships and things to the side. Because for me, the most important thing and what I'll always make my decisions around, is what I think is best for the team.

"There'll be some decisions I'm sure that people might not understand or might be frustrated by. But that's something I'm absolutely fine with and I completely understand."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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