English optimism ahead of a tour of Australia is never higher than before a ball is bowled. At 9am on Monday, some 44 days before the first Test in Brisbane, they ramped up a few notches, and then some.
Ben Stokes is on the plane. After talk the all-rounder might fly out midway through the Ashes series as he stepped up the recovery of a finger broken earlier this year, the ECB announced he will now be there from the start. Having teased his comeback over social media like the latest instalment from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, English cricket’s own eternal is confirmed for this winter’s blockbuster.
It is hard to think of a loser in all this. England have their talisman back after fearing he may be out for much longer. The break for his mental health, the inability to grip a bat properly before a second operation to clear scar tissue last month had many fearing an extended hiatus. Now, Joe Root, one of the few in contact with Stokes during this break, has a friend and trusted general back by his side. And England fans have their totem.
Even Australia can see an upside. It will take more than Stokes to readdress a home dominance that has seen them win nine and draw one of their last 10 Tests against England, never mind taking the urn off them. Stokes, though, presents another clear point of attack. And above all else as far as broadcasters are concerned, he is unequivocally Good For Business.
Even in absentia last time around in 2017/18, Stokes was a consistent talking point. He took on many guises during 4-0 defeat: framed originally as a critical missing piece, then as a beacon of the unruly behaviour from the tourists on that tour. The after-hour misdemeanours and midnight curfew still imposed on England players to this day were a product of his stepping out of line on that fateful night in Bristol a few months earlier.
Arguably the best example of Stokes-Ashes mania came early on in that series. At around 9pm GMT on 27 November 2017, after England had lost the first Test, Stokes was spotted going through Heathrow immigration with his kit bag. It turns out he was on his way to New Zealand to spend time with his family and hit a few white balls. Social media, however, went into overdrive, concluding he was parachuting into the Ashes. The ECB, caught on the hoof, had to put out a few fires on both sides of the globe. With clarity came disappointment.
This time, the 30-year-old will be the spectacle at the feast rather than the spectre. On deck to reinforce both batting and bowling reserves while also offering the experience of highs and lows throughout a Test career that began Down Under eight years ago.
Spirits were high out among the England squad out in the United Arab Emirates. Only a few of them will join Stokes in Australia, but all will appreciate how vital a return this is. In all formats, Stokes offers balance to the XI and an infectious competitive spirit. It is also worth noting how he inspired a “third-string” England to victory against Pakistan over the summer after a Covid-19 breach decimated the main ODI squad.
In some way, Stokes’s return could be the closing of a loop. Missing the 2017/18 Ashes was a bitter blow to a player whose performances had been crescendoing towards a series supposed to underscore his legend. Instead, he watched from afar as his teammates were dragged across Australia, embarrassed and humbled, and was especially pained to see Root worn down to the point of illness by Sydney.
Along with the charge of affray hanging over his head – he was eventually found not guilty – it set Stokes on a path of unsustainable sporting penance. He went harder in training, even harder in the gym – sometimes after long days in the field – seemingly on a vow he would never let his teammates down again.
The upshots were superhuman performances in the 2019 World Cup Final and Headingley 2019, along with further match-winning in South Africa at the start of 2020. The cost is what we know now: that he put his physical and mental wellbeing second by putting the team first. Along with an unforgiving schedule and testing spells in Covid bubbles was the tragedy of the passing of his father, Ged, in December last year.
Of course, this rejuvenated Stokes won’t be any different. He will strive to give more than his share and continue to put himself at the forefront of any battles that take place in Australia, whether out in the middle or in the press. No doubt part of the motivation behind returning will have been not wanting to leave his captain and teammates in the lurch again, and the squad carries a greater threat with his name.
Of utmost importance, though, is Stokes feels comfortable enough to be back. Being a cricketer is a huge part of his identity, and playing for England is an immense point of pride. Even if he is only the difference between 5-0 and 4-1, to have Stokes playing in an Ashes in Australia from the start given where he was six months ago is already a huge victory. Both for English cricket and himself.