England v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Chester-le-Street May 25, 2016

Woakes and Ball vie to fill Stokes void

During the early 1980s, it was far from uncommon for a spectator at Taunton to hear the announcement before play: "No. 11 on your scorecard, Joel Garner, has been replaced by No. 12, Dennis Breakwell."

Breakwell was a fine cricketer. But he was a canny left-arm spinner, not an enormous fast bowler. So while sighs of relief emanated from the visiting dressing room, sighs of frustration emanated from home team spectators. Standing in for a giant isn't easy.

It might feel similar for Chris Woakes or Jake Ball on Thursday morning. Both are highly skilled young bowlers. But neither is Ben Stokes. And a Durham crowd that wanted to see their local hero are bound to feel a little disappointed.

But this is a huge opportunity for whoever is selected. On a pitch that tends to assist seamers and against a batting line-up that may be scarred by the events of Headingley a few days ago, this is an opportunity to establish themselves in the England squad and perhaps nail down the position of first reserve.

Woakes is the more likely to play. It's not just that he is the better batsman - he made his Test debut at No. 6 and has nine first-class centuries behind him - but he comes into the game having just claimed career-best figures of 9 for 36 in the County Championship, with head selector, James Whitaker, among those in attendance. "It was like facing 90-mile-an-hour legbreaks," Durham captain Paul Collingwood said of Woakes' performance. "It was international class."

Woakes' Test record to date is modest. In six Tests he has claimed eight wickets at an eye-watering average of 63.75. Judging from social media - which is not the most accurate barometer - there is little love for him from England's own supporters. And it is true that some batsmen have suggested that, such is his orthodoxy, he can be lined-up relatively easily.

But there is some mitigation for that record. For a start, he has tended to play each Test in isolation. While he played three Tests in the series against India in 2014 and two against South Africa at the turn of this year, he has nearly always been a stand-in. He has never quite been able to relax and settle into his role.

He has played on some flat pitches, too. Rarely taking the new ball, he has struggled to adjust to the general nature of Test surfaces - which are often less helpful to seamers than county surfaces - and has, at times, looked a little plain. He has not been helped, either, by some dropped catches.

He knows that he can't hide behind excuses, valid though they may be. And he knows that his most recent appearance, in Centurion at the end of the South Africa series, was disappointing. But he will probably be the quickest bowler in this match if he plays - he was timed as the quickest in the Durban Test - and, having briefly lost some of his ability to swing the ball, can once against move it both ways.

He is highly rated by his fellow professionals. James Anderson spoke highly of him often during the summer of 2014 - after the Southampton Test, where Woakes finished without a wicket, Anderson credited him with having "bowled fantastically well" - and while that record isn't great just yet, it is worth remembering that, after 20 Tests, James Anderson's bowling average was 39.20 and after eight Tests Broad's was 49.36.

The main difference between Woakes for Warwickshire and Woakes for England is that, at Test level, he sometimes holds his length back just a fraction. That is understandable as, knowing his place is on the line, he is reluctant to be driven. But if he is to take wickets, if he is to flourish, he will have to pitch the ball a little full, gain a little movement and risk the odd boundary.

It was a point made by Stuart Broad as he assessed the qualities of the two bowlers vying for a place. Broad struggled for a long time to hit the right length but, over the last year or two, has developed into the bowler his talent promised he could be. He knows the value of both patience and experience.

"There is a slightly different length you have to bowl in Test cricket compared to the county nibbling wickets," Broad said. "It is just one of those things you have to adjust to. But it is so early to judge a bowler. It is still early in his career.

"Jimmy and I were laughing after his 10-for the other day because it meant he had got his average down to the lowest since his Test debut. He was kicking off that, after his first 10 Tests he averaged 40 and after my first 15 I was up at 38.

"I don't know how many Tests I had to wait for my first five-for. It was in Jamaica in 2009 which was about 10 Tests or something [actually 11].

"It is a bit of a weird place at the start of your career if you don't set the place alight, so you just have to have that patience and belief that you're good enough to deliver when it is your day."

Super sub? Chris Woakes could come in for Ben Stokes © PA Photos

The other option for the position vacated by Stokes is Ball. A bowler much in the image of Broad, Ball has kicked-on impressively over the last 12 months. Picked for the Lions tour on the back of his white-ball skills - he will surely come into the England limited-overs team in the coming weeks - he has added a yard of pace to render him a far greater force in first-class cricket.

He is still not quick - low 80s mph probably - but his tall, broad-shouldered frame suggests there could be more to come. While he will not find Test surfaces as conducive as those in the county game, his skills - he bowls an excellent length and can move the ball both ways - are universal. It bodes well for England that they may be able to leave such an able bowler out of the team.

"I've not seen a bowler improve in 18 months as quickly as he has at any level," Broad said of his Nottinghamshire team-mate. "He suddenly moves it both ways, he can come round the wicket to the lefties when it's not doing anything for him and he gets good top-order players out, which is a great sign for a bowler.

"Jake's had great success with the Lions this winter, which gives you confidence, because if you perform with the Lions, you know you can probably do it at the top level.

"One thing is for sure: Ben Stokes is going to get injured again. It's one of those things. We had it with Freddie Flintoff. We do need to have a contingency plan for when Stokesy gets injured because he's an all-action cricketer, he throws himself about and he bowls 90 miles an hour."

With Stokes out of the picture, England also need a different No. 6. It seems that one option being considered by England is to promote Moeen Ali. That would leave Jonny Bairstow at No. 7 and see either Woakes or Broad at No. 8. Ball looks to have decent hand-eye coordination, but does not look comfortable against pace bowling and would likely find himself at No. 10 or 11.

It was also interesting to see the Newcastle United goalkeeping team - coaches and players - in attendance at training to advise Bairstow on his balance issues. He has clearly taken strides of progress in recent months and everyone involved deserves some credit for thinking outside the box. No pun intended.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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