With no Ben, there is none to stoke it!

Ben Stokes is England’s most valuable cricketer. But the balance of probability is that England will have to defend the Ashes without him. However, even before the Stokes incident, Australia were clear favourites for the series. The reason is simple. When two flawed teams meet in Test cricket, it tends to be the one playing at home who prevail.

It’s a pity that Ben Stokes can’t take aim against Australia.   -  GETTY IMAGES

“If you don’t read the news you’re uninformed,” the American actor Denzel Washington said last year. “If you do read it then you’re misinformed.”

Somehow these words seem pertinent in light of the Ben Stokes affair. At times it has felt little more than an exercise in confirmation bias. Those on both sides have dug into their positions — Stokes’ detractors ask how on earth he could have been out at 2:30 on a Sunday night when a game was 60 hours away and the series remained live; his defenders point to two gay men claiming he saved them from “homophobic thugs” on the street — and seem loathe to change them. The testimony of the gay couple, who spoke in the last week of October, a month after the incident in Bristol, may yet allow Stokes to return midway through the Ashes series. But the balance of probability is that England will have to defend the Ashes without him.

READ Ashes: Key personnel

It will be an onerous task. As a pure batsman, Stokes is easily good enough to make England’s side; he has added brain to his brawn, and incorporated ballast without diluting his power. If his bowling is less valuable — he averages 2.5 wickets a Test — Stokes is a rare fourth seamer capable of bending a match to his will. His reverse swing did so in the last Ashes, when the urn was sealed with Stokes’ 6-36 at Trent Bridge. And it did so again in his very last Test, when he hooped the ball both ways to lay waste the West Indies with 6-22. Add in the force of his personality, his adroit slip catching, and that all facets of his game are well-suited to Australia — as he proved by scoring England’s sole century of the 2013/14 whitewash, and backing it up with a six-wicket haul at Sydney — and Stokes is England’s most valuable cricketer.

Despite the presence of Stuart Broad and James Anderson, England may find it difficult to get 20 Australian wickets.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

How to replace such a totem? At this juncture, it looks as if he will be replaced by another fast bowler, probably Craig Overton, a feisty beanpole from the West Country. Like Stokes four years ago, Overton faces making his debut during the Ashes; like Stokes four years ago, he is not the sort to be overawed.

Even before the Stokes incident, Australia were clear favourites for the series. The reason is simple. When two flawed teams meet in Test cricket, it tends to be the one playing at home who prevail.

The hype surrounding Australia bears no resemblance to their official Test ranking of fifth, just below New Zealand. It is only a year since a run of five consecutive defeats culminated in an innings defeat to South Africa in Hobart; the media ubiquitously declared that Australian cricket was in crisis, and chief executive James Sutherland said they were “lucky to be a top 10 side.”

So real frailties lurk beneath the Australian bluster: above all, a propensity to collapse. Yet, for all their vulnerabilities abroad, at home Australia remain formidable since Boxing Day 2012, they have won 18 of their 24 home Tests, and lost only those two to South Africa.

Consider the case of Usman Khawaja. Underwhelming abroad, especially in Asia, where he averages 14.62 in five Tests, Australia is his fiefdom. Khawaja averages 63.73 at home, including a prolific summer last year against South Africa and Pakistan.

Most imposing of all, of course, are Steven Smith and David Warner. There can still remain a tendency to underestimate Smith, to focus on his idiosyncratic shuffling at the crease more than the full wonder of his batting. But he is on course to be Australia’s second finest Test batsman ever. Consider his record in 40 Tests since the start of 2014: 4400 runs at 70.96 apiece, with an absurd 18 centuries; his return rises further, to nine hundreds at 84.95, on home shores. Warner’s numbers are scarcely less impressive, while Matt Renshaw, who was born in England, and Peter Handscomb provide supporting solidity and class. The greatest uncertainty in Australia’s selection is over the identity of the wicketkeeper: Peter Nevill was dropped last summer; Matthew Wade has had a torrid time in front of and, especially, behind the stumps since.

Joe Root and Alastair Cook may perform well enough, but there is this lurking fear that they will be outdone by Steve Smith and David Warner (below).   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

It is bowling that Australia consider their particular strength — even if it remains unclear whether the reality lives up to the image, of unrelenting 90mph pace. A back injury has ruled out James Pattinson, one of the much-fabled ‘fab four’ pace attack — who have never actually played a Test together — out of the entire series. There is still Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc, fresh from a first-class best 8-73 against South Australia, and Pat Cummins, but history suggests it is most unlikely that Cummins will get through the whole series. Since his debut he had managed five Tests in six years; what price five in seven weeks? Both Hazlewood and Starc are just returning from injury too; if two of the trio are absent, Australia’s touted strength may cease to be so, though both Nathan Coulter-Nile and the redoubtable Peter Siddle would be highly accomplished fill-ins. The unobtrusive offspinner Nathan Lyon is bowling better than ever, as 22 wickets in the two-Test tour of Bangladesh attests. A desire for bowling support may well lead Australia to select an allrounder — probably Marcus Stoinis or Glenn Maxwell — at number six.

Whatever the shape of their attack, Australia will still regard England’s batting as susceptible. Essentially the fear is this: Alastair Cook and Joe Root perform well enough, but are outdone by Smith and Warner, while the rest of England’s top order flounders. Both Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali should relish being bumped up one place each in the order, as a by-product of Stokes’ absence.

Yet the sight of Bairstow entering at 100-4, or worse, threatens to become a ritual. England retain huge uncertainty over three of their top five places in the batting order. Mark Stoneman, Cook’s 12th opening partner since Andrew Strauss retired five years ago, averaged 30.00 in his first three Tests against the West Indies. His combativeness and proficiency against the short ball augur well for Australia.

Altogether more concerning is the identities of numbers three and five. James Vince’s recall is bewildering. He floundered badly in his first seven Tests, at home to Sri Lanka and Pakistan, last summer, when at times his innings rapidly gained a familiar ritual: a series of attractive drives through the offside giving way to an edge to gully. A first-class average of 35.14 last summer hardly demanded a recall, let alone at number three, but Vince has been selected out of belief that his game is well-suited to the lack of lateral movement in Australia — and, more than anything, the absence of other options. The same is true of the return of Gary Ballance, who will vie with Dawid Malan for the number five berth.

Bowling has been less troublesome, yet the suspicion lingers that England may find it difficult to extract 20 Australian wickets at tolerable expense. For all James Anderson’s brilliance through the summer, he only managed 14 wickets at 43.92 each during the last Ashes tour. After an underwhelming summer, there are real concerns over Stuart Broad, while Chris Woakes has taken only eight wickets at 63.75 in seven Tests away from home. There are serious questions over all three of Craig Overton, Jake Ball and Steven Finn, who will be tasked with replacing Stokes. It may well be that England are left ruing another absence — that of Toby Roland-Jones, who bowled zestfully in his maiden Test summer, and looked well-equipped to harness the Kookabura ball — almost as much as that of Stokes. Moeen enjoyed an outstanding summer with his offspin, but the extent of the challenge he faces on his maiden tour of Australia is immense.

The conclusion is undeniable: that Australia are clear favourites, even if not by quite as much as some of their more zealous members of the media might like to portray. Still, a third 5-0 Australian whitewash in four home Ashes series is far from inconceivable.

 

That would certainly delight many Australian fans. But others, of both sides, have a more modest wish: to see a contest. Recent Ashes series have been curiously underwhelming — perhaps undermined by a sense of being devalued, as extra Australia-England matches were rammed into the schedule to ensure that broadcasting rights continued to rise. They have also lacked uncertainty in the games themselves — while the last series, in 2015, oscillated widely between matches, before ending 3-2 to England, there was little competitiveness within them. Two flawed teams have lacked the temperament or technique — or both — to fight from behind. Remarkably, the closest final result in an Ashes Test in the past 10 games, over 2013/14 and 2015, was Australia’s 150-run victory at Perth in 2013 — the same match in which Stokes announced himself with a bold and brilliant century, in defiance of growing cracks in the wicket and Australian jubilation.

With or — most probably — without Stokes, it would be nice if, this time, the Tests themselves provided contests to savour.