Ashes 2017-18: Stokes-less England feel the void
The unforgiveness of Test match cricket can be gauged by the fact that England matched Australia stroke by stroke on the first three days at the Gabba but still lost because they couldn't do that for two more days. England were effectively 7/2 at stumps on day 3 and while it could not have been said that the visitors were in pole position, their position could have been better had there not been a continuation of the lower-order collapses they had been enduring in the tour games. Against Cricket Australia XI, England lost 5/22 and 7/47 in Adelaide and 5/38 in Townsville. Against Australia in Brisbane, they lost 6/56 and 5/40.
To put things in perspective, these collapses should be pitched against the 1242 runs that England's last five wickets added in their home summer across 12 innings at 103.5. That average has shrunk to 41.25 on this tour. Another noticeable fact and the one that would partially explain these collapses is that Ben Stokes had scored 38% of these last-five runs. A tally of 469 runs at 39 last summer not only made the exiled all-rounder the lynchpin of England's lineup but also helped save several lower-order collapses and turned them into match-winning positions.
Stokes is now in New Zealand and wishes to spend some time with the family while playing domestic cricket in the country of his birth. That it has been seen as a precondition to his Ashes fortune is both an overreach as well as an extrapolation of something that is just not there. England have been stating the obvious and have been waiting for the investigations to end, but the way Andrew Strauss, their director of cricket and coach Trevor Bayliss used the words 'thugs' and 'stupid,' respectively, to describe the shenanigans of the team, it was certain that mannerisms had taken precedence over team unity.
To top that, Chris Woakes - the man most burdened with filling the Stokes-sized void in the team - admitted that 'Ben Stokes is Ben Stokes' and that he 'balances the team perfectly.' He did not shy away from admitting that cricket in New Zealand may fast-track his reinstation to the England side subject to ECB approval. Joe Root, the captain, forewarned everyone from matching and mixing up the Jonny Bairstow incident with the one that occurred in 2013 wherein he was involved in ferocious capacity alongside David Warner, especially in the wake of what happened with Stokes.
Hence, at the moment, it looks as if Stokes is a scapegoat and not an MVP for the ECB, who they're using to shred itself off the image of a weak board unable to put the players behind regulation bars. Reports of midnight curfews point to the lack of trust that ECB have in their own players, quite astonishingly, which has been perpetrated by the opposite section of the media.
Cue this statement by Strauss on the Bairstow hullaballoo, "All I'm saying is that the world has moved on. Certainly, in light of the Ben Stokes situation, there is attention on us that there wasn't previously and we need to move with that. I think the guys do understand: it is very crystal clear to them now that if you put yourself in a position to have a go at you, they probably will do that now. This is an incident of our own making."
No, this wasn't an incident of their own making. It wasn't an incident at all - as both Bairstow and Cameron Bancroft have testified. It was made to look like an incident in the middle of a Test match, was followed up with, if I dare say, embarrassing questions which could have been replaced by those focussing on the riveting Test that we'd had and was brushed off as a mere tactic by the Australians, used to get in the heads of the opposition - specifically Bairstow. Guess what? It had worked.
The Ashes, so far, has been more about what was said off the field than what was done on it and the narrative that has been driven around Stokes brings shame to the legacy of the series. It is worth asking whether an accused cricketer is any more ordinary than any other accused human and why are the minute-by-minute whereabouts of the said cricketer reported and covered with such ferocity. The answer, perhaps, lies as much with those reporting such content as it does with the ones consuming it.
Nothing interests a lay fan as much as schadenfreude. Had this not been the case, no one would have talked about Stokes since the day he was accused of attacking a man. Nobody's talking about Hales, isn't it? Fans want to know what Stokes has been up to since he stepped foot on New Zealand soil. They want to know - want to hear, rather - how bad was the headbutt-hello by Bairstow to Bancroft. Anybody who reads the questions posed to Bancroft in the post-match presser would easily conclude how star-driven a lay fan is.
It is not just the average Indian fan who is more into Kohli's off-field camaraderie than his crease. It's the case everywhere. The ones reporting and propagating the Bairstow-like non-events and the Stokes-like accidents would have nothing to report if you and I stop reading and drawing sadistic pleasure from a star's misfortune. A convicted cricketer is as ordinary as any convicted human and it is time to stop peeking into the investigation rooms and focus, for heaven's sake, on what's about to unfold in Adelaide.
Unless, of course, the Ashes is more about the rivalry itself than about cricket.