Joe Root on Ben Stokes: 'I just want my friend to be okay'

England captain recognises allrounder is irreplaceable as first Test looms

George Dobell
George Dobell
Joe Root has admitted that the absence of Ben Stokes leaves a huge hole at the heart of England's team, but insists his first consideration is for the well-being of his friend.
Stokes has taken a break from the sport to focus on his mental well-being. While there has been no time-frame placed on his return, he is not currently expected to appear at any point in the LV= Insurance Test series against India. Quite apart from the non-physical issues, there is also a concern that the finger Stokes broke earlier this year could require a further operation.
But although Root, the England captain, is candid about the enormity of the loss that Stokes' absence represents, he is clear that there are more important things in life. And he is adamant that Stokes, who at times over the last few years has carried this England team, has earned the fulsome support of everyone involved in the England set-up.
"From my point of view, I just want my friend to be okay," Root said from Trent Bridge on Monday. "Anyone who knows Ben knows he always puts other people first. Now is an opportunity for him to put himself first, to take time to look after himself and get to a good place again.
"Cricket has to be a secondary thought. It's a long way down the line and he should take as much time as he needs. He's got my full support on that and he's been assured he's got the full support of the ECB on that. And certainly, he's got the whole team's support. More than anything, we just want Ben to be okay. He's got everyone behind him.
"I had a conversation with Ben and that's when I found out. The call will stay between the two of us but for me it was hard to see a friend like that. More than anything, I just want him to be okay. I think throughout this it's important for people to respect his privacy to give him the best chance to deal with this in his own way."
In the absence of Stokes, balancing the England team is problematic. Had Chris Woakes, who has a bruised heel sustained falling down stairs, been fit he might have mitigated the loss. Moeen Ali was considered as a replacement, too. But, as Root knows, there is "no one that compares" to Stokes.
"In my opinion, there's no one that compares to Ben Stokes in world cricket," Root continued. "Obviously for a long time now, he's been incredible. He's the heartbeat of this team. Balancing the side with Ben not there is one of the things that will take a lot of the thinking."
It seems probable that England will pick two all-rounders - Sam Curran to bat at No. 7 and Ollie Robinson at No. 8 - in an attempt to replicate the depth with bat and ball that Stokes provides. But with the surface also expected to turn, England are also keen to pick their left-arm spinner, Jack Leach. James Anderson and Stuart Broad are expected to complete the attack - though there is understood to have been some talk about rotating them - meaning there is unlikely to be room for Mark Wood.
That will leave England's batting a little light. With Ollie Pope enjoying a long bat in training on Monday, it appears he will be fit to return at No. 5 with Jos Buttler, the keeper, batting at No. 6. The top three is set to be Rory Burns, Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley, meaning there is unlikely to be room for Jonny Bairstow or Dan Lawrence.
In the longer term, Stokes' unavailability is sure to refocus attention on the schedule of England's top players. While their international fixture list has been bursting at the seams for years, the increasing pull of the IPL and the difficulty of travel in the time of Covid has exacerbated the issues. The idea of players pulling out - or being rested from - an Ashes series might have seemed unthinkable not so long ago, but now appears probable. Indeed, if the Australian government does not provide a dispensation allowing players' families to join them on the tour, it seems there could be several high-profile withdrawals.
"As long as I've played we've always spent long periods away from home and that is a challenge in itself," Root said. "But certainly it has been heightened by the environment we find ourselves in and it's just important we keep talking about it.
"We've said from the outset that we don't think this is a sustainable way of living and playing and we've tried to manage it as best we can. If you find it getting too much you have to talk to people and give yourself the best chance of staying in a good place. It is a challenge at the moment.
"What I will say is that having the opportunity to lift that urn is one of the things you dream about from being four or five years old. That does not change. Of course there are challenges, but everyone is desperate to be part of an Ashes series in Australia.
"From a players' point of view, until we know what the lay of the land is, it's very hard to make any sort of decision. Until then we have to continue conversations with the ECB so they can work with Australia to try to come up with what it's going to look like when we get there."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo