‘Stokes has an aura – Australia know what he can do’

Ashes: Ben Stokes has an aura - Australia know what he can do

Ben Stokes made an unbeaten 135 and shared 76 with last man Jack Leach to help England to a one-wicket win in the third Test at Headingley in the 2019 Ashes series

This has been an unprecedented build-up to an Ashes series.

Even if you can put aside seismic events 10,000 miles apart involving Azeem Rafiq and Tim Paine, the schedule, Covid restrictions and weather have left both teams underprepared.


Whereas Australia have named their starting XI for the first Test at the Gabba, England are still weighing up some key decisions because they have had only two-and-a-bit days of cricket since they arrived down under. Whatever path they ultimately take will be a bit of a gamble.

They will surely want James Anderson to play in the day-night second Test in Adelaide, but that comes hot on the heels of the first, where it looks likely to be damp and humid. His experience in the cauldron of a first Ashes Test with very few England fans in attendance would be invaluable, too.

Can they play him in both? If they do, where would that leave Stuart Broad, who hasn’t played since the first Test against India because of a calf injury? Do they even omit a spinner and play four frontline seamers because of Ben Stokes’ lack of cricket?

Given his time out of the game – Stokes has not played anything meaningful since July and not in a Test since March – England will be wary of exposing their star all-rounder.

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However, there is no denying that Stokes’ return to the squad just before they came to Australia was a huge boost and one that changed the complexion of the series.

Eight years ago, he announced his arrival on the world stage on an Ashes tour where an entire era of English cricket fell apart. He was one of the few bright spots, making his maiden century in only his second match.

Four years ago, he missed out completely because of what happened in Bristol and, without him, England were vastly inferior in a 4-0 defeat.

We thought it might be the same again this time around, only for the good news to lift spirits on a grey Monday morning in the UK. All of a sudden, it was as if everyone was jumping for joy. I know that Joe Root was uplifted by it.

Stokes is such a key member of the team. Batting, bowling, catching at slip and leadership – he is like four cricketers in one.

Because he has been out for so long, we will have to see how he goes, but he’s such a brilliant player it’s hard to think he won’t have a big impact at some point.

The crowds for Ashes series in Australia are always partisan and will be even more so this time around because of the lack of travelling England supporters.

However, I expect Stokes to get a rousing reception because Aussies love competitors and winners, which is exactly what he is.

It was interesting to hear Australia coach Justin Langer say he has nightmares about what Stokes achieved at Headingley two years ago, playing one of the greatest Ashes innings of all time to give England the most incredible victory.

It was probably a little tongue-in-cheek from Langer – I’m not sure he actually has nightmares – but the lack of machismo we would normally expect from an Australian coach gives an indication of the regard Stokes is held in by the men in baggy green caps.

He has an aura. Many of the current Australia team were in Leeds and they will have the memories. It will only take him to look even slightly dangerous and they will start wondering what he is capable of doing.

That is what happens when a player has a reputation and has gained the respect of the opposition.

The build-up has not only been strange for the players, but also for the media.

Broadcasters can’t get into Brisbane, meaning TV and radio coverage of the first Test will come from Sydney.

Similarly, the Australian newspapers haven’t been able to get near the England team, so the tourists have been spared the usual dialogue of being written off and told they are useless. England often take a pummelling before the first ball is bowled.

That is just one of the things to have gone England’s way. The lack of preparation will be a leveller at the Gabba, where England have an awful record. If the fifth Test is not played in Perth and is instead a day-nighter elsewhere, that theoretically favours the tourists.

Still, even taking all of those things into consideration, the Australian line-up looks powerful and well-balanced, while England have the same old issues around their top order.

How are Rory Burns, Haseeb Hameed and Dawid Malan going to fare? Will Root’s brilliant form continue? How will Stokes return after months out of the fray? How do they manage their bowlers? There are so many imponderables.

England can’t do any worse than their last two visits here, where they have lost nine, drawn one and won none.

When they won here in 1986-87, they won the first Test in Brisbane. The series win in 2010-11 came after a famous Gabba draw.

If they can get out of Brisbane with something, it will feel like they have a real chance.

Jonathan Agnew was speaking to BBC Sport’s chief cricket writer Stephan Shemilt

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