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Ben Stokes answers England's call with a vow to keep smiling through the 'fluster'

Captain puts focus on enjoyment amid extraordinary circumstances of early England recall

George Dobell
George Dobell
You didn't think Ben Stokes would turn England down in their hour of need, did you?
He is not, by any means, at full fitness. And he does not, by any means, have a full strength squad at his disposal. But when the cry for help came through, late on Monday night, he was happy to answer it. Not for the first time, Stokes was the man England turned to in a crisis.
"I had to stand up," Stokes said matter-of-factly from England's team hotel in Cardiff. "It was like when I came back for Durham a bit earlier [than had been planned]: my job needed me to do something, so I had to stand up.
"It's the same with this. It's earlier than planned from a medical and fitness point of view. But when a job comes and calls you, you need to stand up and make yourself available."
Stokes is, in many ways, the perfect temporary leader. He is an automatic pick, he has natural authority, he is calm under pressure and, as a man with no obvious captaincy ambitions, he will be very happy to pass the responsibility back in a week or two. It's his second experience of England captaincy after he deputised for Joe Root, who was on paternity leave, for the first Test of last year's series against West Indies. As he put it: "I've captained because Joe was having a baby and I'm captain now because of a Covid outbreak. So it's a strange situation. But it's a huge honour and I'm looking forward to it."
It might be wise, though, not to expect too much from Stokes as a player. On the evidence of his recent outings with Durham, he is some distance from his best with the bat or the ball. Until the weekend, there was every chance the England management were going to leave him out of both this ODI series and the T20 series which follows to allow him time to build up both his form and fitness ahead of the Test series against India.
"After the phone call from Chris Silverwood, my wife sent me a screenshot of an article saying England aren't going to rush Ben Stokes back," Stokes continued. "I tried to make light of the situation and sent the same thing to Ashley Giles as well. It's one of these situations that's an example of 'if you don't laugh, you'll cry'.
"I felt 45 [years old] after bowling in the Championship game," he added, after taking figures of 3 for 55 against Warwickshire at Edgbaston on Monday. "But there's no issues in terms of how many overs I have bowled going into a one-day game, so my role won't change from the last four or five years."
While Stokes, talking ahead of training, was reluctant to confirm any plans, he did hint that Brydon Carse, whom he called "a seriously impressive cricketer", would play. He also praised John Simpson, who could be preferred to Ben Duckett with the gloves.
"He's got that pace and X-factor that every team wishes they had," Stokes said of Carse. "He's known for his bowling but he is a genuinely good batsman as well. I see him in a similar role to Liam Plunkett in the England team.
"I have played against Simpson a lot. He's a very, very talented player and a very good gloveman as well. We know they are heading into an international for the first time but they have got a lot of experience if they get an opportunity to play."
Stokes also clarified he would return to the middle-order after a brief foray into the top three in India in March. He scored 99 in the second ODI of that series; it was one of the five times in his most recent eight ODI innings that he has passed 75.
England could do with such form now. His squad is talented, of course. But nine of them are uncapped and one or two others must have thought their international careers were over. It is asking a huge amount of them to deputise for World Cup winners.
Their preparations since the call-ups have been far from ideal, too. Though the results of the squad's PCR tests came back negative on Wednesday afternoon, thus avoiding throwing the series into even more chaos, the delay meant that training was not able to begin until 3pm. Until then, they were marooned in their rooms and limited to conversations over Zoom. They will have, therefore, just one training session ahead of the game.
With that in mind, Stokes' ambitions for the series sounded unsurprisingly modest. But he is not the sort of cricketer to accept a place among the also-rans. He is, quite clearly, in Cardiff to win. And as one of those characters who gives those around him confidence simply by his presence, England are in as safe hands as they could be in these odd circumstances.
"I'm not going to put too much pressure on myself or the guys who will be playing because it is exceptional circumstances," Stokes said. "We will just get through it. I just want to make sure everyone has a good time.
"But I expect us to be very competitive. It doesn't matter what names are on the back of an England shirt; we are walking out there as the No. 1 [ranked] team. That is an exciting thing to say you are a part of, whether you are an experienced player, a young player or someone coming into the group for the first time. You don't get picked in an England team without being successful in county cricket.
"Situations like these are so rare and such a fluster, I would say you have got a chance to represent your country so let's do it with a smile on our face and just enjoy it as much as we can as a group.
"The guys picked have put their hand up in county cricket and deserve to be in this situation, albeit through extreme circumstances. Everyone warrants their place in the squad.
"It's an amazing opportunity for guys on the fringes. It's a really exciting time for them as individuals and for the public who follow the team. We're going to look at it from a positive. We haven't seen these guys in an England shirt because of how strong we have been.
"I'm looking forward to leading out the next exciting cricketers coming through in England, who will no doubt be in an England shirt in the future. It just came quicker than we expected."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo