“Probably one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make as captain,” said England captain Joe Root when he confirmed that Ben Stokes will be lining up in the XI for the third Test at the expense of Sam Curran. The 20-year-old may feel hard done by, especially after a Man-of-the-Match showing in the first Test at Edgbaston.
There was an inevitability to the decision: Curran was handed his Test debut earlier this summer as an injury replacement for Stokes. The Durham all-rounder also bowled superbly in the first Test against India and, without a doubt, enhances this England side in all three departments. Nevertheless, it is a move will polarise opinion.
Even though matters at Bristol Crown Court ended with a unanimous “not guilty” verdict, there are still matters to tend to. The Cricket Discipline Committee will need to convene and are expected to deliberate over charges related to bringing the game into disrepute, with sanctions to be imposed on both Stokes and Alex Hales. This story is still not over.
As such, there is a feeling that Stokes could have sat this one out. After all, England are two-nil up in the series after a dominant performance at Lord’s, against an India side whose batsmen seem full of faults. And there is a feeling in some quarters that the presence of Stokes sends a poor message about appropriate behaviour for an England cricketer, regardless of the “not guilty” verdict. But for Root, Stokes’s selection is a no-brainer.
“That was a decision made above our heads,” responded Root when asked about Stokes’s immediate availability. “He has been made available for selection. From that point on it was about is he good enough to play for England.
“He has been a fine performer for us for a long period of time. You don’t want to leave someone like Ben out. He offers so much to this group on and off the field. He is a big part of our team and I can see him putting in just as he always does and he has the ability to change the game. Hopefully that can be the case this week.”
Much of the skipper’s decision centred around Stokes’s mindset after his trial. Root sat down with his teammate and friend yesterday and left the conversation in “no doubt” that Stokes was in the right frame of mind. “I asked him where he was at and he told me he was desperate to get out there.”
It is understood that Stokes addressed the team when he returned on Thursday (August 16), thought Root was unwilling to divulge what had been said: “There are certain things that should be kept within the group”. Practice then on Friday was to see how Stokes came through after a period of inactivity. Also, the prospect of an uncertain welcome from the crowd. All factors were considered before making the decision to give him this start.
“We obviously assessed his fitness as well, over the course of the two days, and made that call, said Root. “He felt he was ready to play.
“It’s obviously been a long process and he’s found “not guilty” now. Who knows how people will react. I’m sure he’s very aware that there might be a slightly different reaction. That’s all part and parcel in making sure he’s ready to play. The one thing I can say is that I’ve known ben from being really quite young and I feel very confident he’ll be able to put in a really strong performance. He looks strong and fresh and really raring to go.”
As for Curran, the Surrey all-rounder was understandably dismayed at the call. Root, though, championed his young left-armer, particularly the way he dealt with the news. Currently, Curran has a batting average of 37 and a bowling average of 23.5 from a small sample size of three games but his performances, particularly the manner in which he has taken his opportunities, Root feels, is a lesson to both the younger and senior members of the squad and wider domestic set-up.
“He took it extremely well. Very mature for a young guy whose desperate to play and has come in and made a really impressive part to his Test career.
“But he’s offered so much to this bowling group – and at the start of the series I said to the team for us to win a five-match series against the best side in the world, it’s going to take more than just 11 players. It’s about us as a squad performing collectively for five games, and he’s played a massive part in the first two.
“It might be that he comes back in later on. So ultimately, it’s about us as a squad delivering over a five to six-week period – and on this occasion, he’s unfortunate to miss out. But what he’s done so far has been nothing short of high-class.”
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