Ben Stokes is 'moving forward', says Chris Silverwood, but unlikely to form part of England's Plan B
Bowling attack will rely on "supreme accuracy" in absence of Jofra Archer, Olly Stone firepower
England will have to fall back on Plan B in Australia - and that is not 'B for Ben Stokes', with head coach, Chris Silverwood, stressing that no timeframe has been put on the talismanic allrounder making his comeback.
In the two years since Silverwood took over from Trevor Bayliss with a brief to regain the Ashes, England had dedicated much of their planning to having a group of 90mph fast bowlers - Jofra Archer, Mark Wood and Olly Stone - ready to deploy in Australia. But with Archer and Stone ruled out by elbow and back problems respectively, as well as Wood's well-documented fragility, Joe Root's attack will prioritise "supreme accuracy" in their attempts to regularly take 20 Australian wickets.
Silverwood believed England will be "very competitive" after picking what amounts to a full-strength squad, given the expected absences of Stokes, Archer, Stone and Moeen Ali, who retired from Test cricket last month. Only three of England's top-order batters have played Tests in Australia before, and although Root is currently ranked No. 1 in the world by the ICC, the next-highest in the squad is Rory Burns at No. 24.
Stokes' return would strengthen England in all departments and it is not impossible that he could join the tour at a later date. For now, Silverwood stressed that the player's mental well-being remained the priority, as he continues to work back to fitness after another operation on his finger earlier in the week.
"Ben is moving forward, the communications I have had with him he is definitely more upbeat," Silverwood said. "But what I will say is there will be no pressure from me for him to rush back. I've said, 'When you're ready, you call me and we'll make a plan from there'. So there's no pressure from me and no date on it.
"I'm not going to tell him when he comes back. I'll be led by him and my concern first and foremost is his well-being. And when he does come back we'll make sure he's in the right place."
Although the loss of Archer, who shook up the 2019 Ashes by taking 22 wickets at 20.27, was a particular blow to England, they have capable fast-bowling stocks to draw on. Ollie Robinson's first summer in Test whites could scarcely have gone better - historical social media indiscretions aside - and he will look to provide key support to the veteran pair of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, who is set to return to bowling at Loughborough next week after a torn right calf ruled him out of three Tests against India.
England can still call on Wood's pace, even if his workload is likely to be managed. With Chris Woakes, England's player of the summer in 2020, having previously made steps to improve his record with the Kookaburra ball, and Craig Overton, whose fighting spirit was one of the few highlights of the 2017-18 Ashes tour, impressing on his return to Test cricket in the win over India at Headingley, Silverwood remains upbeat.
"I think we can [take 20 wickets]," he said. "Every plan has got to be adaptable. We have got one 90mph bowler in there in Woody. But I think the one thing that we have got in the bowling attack is supreme accuracy. You look at the bowlers that are there and the one thing they are very good at is hitting the stumps and bringing the stumps into play time and time again. We watched how India performed in Australia [last winter] and we tried to learn lessons from them.
"I am very curious as a bloke so I am constantly watching, as are my bowling attack. What we will be doing is looking back over the plans India used and adapting any of those to our bowling attack. How do we get the best out of the bowling attack we have got rather than worrying about what we haven't got? There is nothing we can do about that so it's pointless. We will be using the skills we have in the best possible way and I do believe that we can make it work.
"I think we'll be very competitive, we look at the fact Australia have been very strong over the years and we have to respect them. But we have over the last 6-7 months played the top two teams in the world, learned a hell of a lot. We look at India, how do they go about their business? There is a strong belief we can [also] do something very special. They've shown a game plan that was successful over there and so we will be learning from them."
After making strides as a Test team between 2019 and early 2021, England will head for Australia having won just one of their last nine - beaten heavily in India and at home against New Zealand, then trailing 2-1 before India's withdrawal from the Old Trafford Test last month. By contrast, Australia's Test team has barely played, with just a home defeat to India on their record since January 2020. Despite a tough recent run, Silverwood was happy with his team's preparation.
"I think we are battle hardened, we've had some success along the way and we've proven we can compete with India. The important thing for me is our players have seen what the best in the world look like, they've played against it, they've felt what it is to have them push against us. We've also tasted success against them, look at the Headingley Test when we came back very strong, which showed that we have got the skills within the ranks to take 20 wickets and push the best. So I see that as a real positive, a real galvaniser to the group, to better handle pressure now that they see it more and more, which is great."
Silverwood also praised Root for the "class and empathy" he had displayed during lengthy and at times tense negotiations with Cricket Australia about the conditions England would tour under, before the ECB gave a tentative green light for the tour last week.
"His players have got behind him and will follow him, so will I and my staff," Silverwood said. "I think we've got to a good place before what should be a very competitive series in Australia.
"It is an iconic series, every young cricketer growing up wants to play in it and as a coach, they want to coach in it. It is massively exciting that this series is going ahead, that we are at the point that everyone is committed and we are all going. I think the mindset now will shift towards performance. That's how it has got to be. I will be speaking to the players and the staff and making sure when we turn up in Australia, whether that be the red-ball specialists and the Lions who arrive first or the multi-format [players] arriving from the World Cup here, we will make sure we are in the right mind space to come out there and compete."
Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick