After a couple of weeks of hints and clues, a training video here and a positive update there, Monday brought the big reveal: Ben Stokes has recovered from his injured finger, has declared himself “ready for Australia” and has duly been added to England’s squad for the Ashes tour.
Stokes first broke the index finger on his left hand in April while playing for Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League. After an apparently successful operation he returned in June, playing half a dozen games for Durham, a couple for England – captaining a weakened side against Pakistan after the original squad was hit by a Covid outbreak – and two more in the Hundred, but the discomfort continued. In July, worried about the injury as well as his mental health, he announced he was taking an indefinite break from the game.
Earlier this month Stokes underwent a second surgery on the finger, in which two screws and some scar tissue were removed, but this intervention has not delayed his return as was initially feared. On 14 October he posted the first of a series of training videos on Instagram and this was followed on Monday, shortly after the England and Wales Cricket Board had released news of his call-up, by a picture of the Ashes urn. “I had a break to prioritise my mental wellbeing and I got my finger sorted,” Stokes said. “I am looking forward to seeing my mates and being on the field with them. I’m ready for Australia.”
In his column for the Mirror Stokes said: “I had been struggling with bubble life and events off the field. I don’t want anyone to feel the way I did, because I wasn’t in a good place and I’m not afraid to admit it. I was in a real dark place and having some difficult thoughts. I was always one of those people who wouldn’t talk about how they are feeling and just keep it internal and crack on. I now realise talking is such a powerful thing and it has completely changed me.”
Reacting to the news England’s Test captain, Joe Root, tweeted: “One of the greats as a cricketer and an even better bloke. Welcome back my friend.”
Stokes will join Root and the other Test specialists in leaving England for Australia on 4 November, with those players currently at the T20 World Cup following after that tournament concludes.
“It’s a massive boost,” said Jos Buttler, who is with the World Cup squad in the United Arab Emirates. “First and foremost, just great news for Ben that he is feeling fit and healthy and ready to resume his career. And obviously we know what he brings to any team in the world as a player.
“He’s one of the best players in the world and he makes you feel a foot taller when he’s in the team with you, so great news. As a friend and teammate everyone’s just delighted that he’s happy and healthy and ready to get back on the park.”
After announcing the Ashes squad Chris Silverwood, England’s head coach, said of the possibility of Stokes being added to it: “There will be no pressure from me. I’ve said: ‘When you’re ready, you call me and we’ll make a plan from there.’”
In its announcement on Monday the ECB was clear that Stokes had indeed made the first move: “Ben called me to say he was ready to return to cricket and was excited about the prospect of playing a significant role in the Ashes series,” said Ashley Giles, England’s managing director of men’s cricket.
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Stokes played on England’s tour of Australia in 2013-14 but missed the last trip in 2017-18 because of the international suspension that followed his arrest on suspicion of causing actual bodily harm following a fight outside a Bristol nightclub; he was eventually found not guilty of affray in August 2018. But three of his Stokes’s seven highest Test scores have come against Australia, including the most celebrated of all, the unbeaten 135 that plucked victory from the jaws of defeat at Headingley in 2019.
“Ben’s been someone who throughout his career has been able to produce incredibly special moments in the biggest of matches,” Buttler said.
“Going on an Ashes tour is the biggest challenge for English cricketers – as a series, you want the best players to be there and Ben is obviously that. He’s certainly someone who relishes the competitive nature of it and he’s certainly played some of his best cricket against Australia so as an England fan I’d be really excited.”