Ben Stokes finally addressed the Ashes issue and revealed he had given the England and Wales Cricket Board one task to aid his attempt to beat Australia this year.
“I said to the medical team, ‘Just give me eight fast bowlers to choose from’,” he said at the start of the biggest year of his captaincy.
The attack in England’s first Test of 2023 will have a very familiar look after Stokes confirmed his XI two days out from Thursday’s match against New Zealand at the Bay Oval in Mount Maunganui, Tauranga. Stuart Broad returns after missing the Pakistan tour, with James Anderson and Ollie Robinson making up the three specialist seamers.
They are the senior core of the gang of eight Stokes has identified. He knows he will need depth, with the five-Test series crammed into five weeks to accommodate the Hundred. England have often been unable to field their first-choice attack against Australia because of injury, and have lacked the personnel to bolster their ranks.
Much is made of England’s aggressive batting, but they also attack with the ball now, having taken 20 wickets in nine out of 10 Tests. It is why Stokes wants options to throw at Australia when the Ashes series starts in June at Edgbaston.
The biggest issue for England is keeping bowlers fit. Jofra Archer has not played Test cricket since 2021, Mark Wood has to be handled astutely and was rested from this tour, while Olly Stone has managed only three Tests in four years and Saqib Mahmood is highly regarded but missed the entire English summer due to a stress fracture of the back. He returns for the first time in Bangladesh next month.
Ben Stokes and Stuart Broad during the second Test against New Zealand last June.Credit:Getty Images
England are already a bowler down. Jamie Overton is unlikely to be part of the Ashes after he became the latest quick to suffer from the curse of back stress fractures.
Matt Potts is on the New Zealand tour and was the best bowler in the warm-up game last week. He will feature in Stokes’ Ashes plans, as could Chris Woakes. He might not be considered for overseas Tests any more but he remains as effective as Anderson and Broad with the Dukes ball in England.
Stokes’ bowling days are winding down. He will still volunteer for a long spell of back-breaking (in his case, knee-breaking) work if the team needs it, but he has been careful with his preparation in New Zealand, bowling only the odd spell in the nets.
Stokes has avoided mentioning the Ashes since his appointment last April, insisting the team concentrates on the here and now after too many years worrying about the next gig.
Jofra Archer has not played Test cricket since 2021.Credit:Getty
But this is England’s last Test series before the Ashes – there is a one-off game against Ireland in June – and it is hard to see his side changing much from the one playing this week, so talk is turning to Australia.
New Zealand have already played against “Bazball”. This is the first time England have met a team for the second time under Stokes and head coach Brendon McCullum, so the element of surprise has gone.
England also have a poor record in New Zealand, having not won a single Test there since 2008. Tim Southee has replaced Kane Williamson as captain since the 3-0 defeat in England last summer, when New Zealand had a chance in all three Tests but were blown away.
Will they be bolder? Can they go toe-to-toe with England? The loss of Kyle Jamieson due to a stress fracture and the absence of Matt Henry because of the birth of his child weakens their attack considerably.
Southee was more positive than his predecessor on the recent tour of Pakistan, gambling with a declaration, and New Zealand batted a touch quicker – 3.6 an over compared to 2.4 on previous tours – but nowhere near the rapidity of England (5.5 an over). It showed in the result of the two-match series: 0-0.
Williamson scored a double hundred in the first Test, but New Zealand did not leave themselves enough time to take 20 wickets.
Stokes has set the train running and led by example. With the team programmed to play his way, it is now about guiding the next generation.
“I’m at a stage now where I would much prefer to leave a mark on other people’s careers than look to make mine more established,” he said.
“I’ve got a real desire to make the best out of the team I’ve got and one of my goals as captain is to let some of these guys just have an amazing career. If I can influence that in any way, shape or form, then I’ll be happy.”
The Telegraph, London
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