Ben Stokes back for The Ashes: Hero of Headingley strikes fear into Australia

THE NEWS came through at 9am our time – ruining the evening Down Under, perhaps, and sending Australians to bed with the prospect of nightmares.

Ben Stokes, hero of Headingley, beating heart of the England team, talismanic all-rounder, inspirational figurehead, had been added to the squad for the Ashes tour.

In an instant, England’s chances went from practically invisible to at least perceptible, such is Stokes’s value to the side.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“I’m ready for Australia, ” he was quoted as saying, a war cry to send shivers from Brisbane to Perth.

Nobody does it better: Ben Stokes famously dismantled Australia at Headingley in 2019. (Picture: Getty)

As anyone who saw Stokes take Australia apart at Headingley two years ago knows full well, the Durham man, 30, has magic in his veins. Simply by his presence, his appearance on the plane, England will travel to Australia with hope in their hearts, even if it is as wise to remember Robert Louis Stevenson’s words that it is sometimes better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

Stokes balances a side with no obvious replacement – not that the irreplaceable can be replaced – and enables England to play four pace bowlers in addition to a specialist spinner (good news for Jack Leach and, perhaps, Yorkshire’s Dom Bess).

Perhaps more significantly, it takes considerable burden off captain Joe Root, not just because Stokes is such a leader in the dressing room and also on the field but because he is capable of scoring Ashes hundreds, skills that will be needed to combat the considerable threats posed by Pat Cummins, Josh Hazelwood, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon.

Stokes can glue things together at No 5 amid the Yorkshire trio of Dawid Malan at No 3, Root at No 4 and Jonny Bairstow at No 6.

England batsman Ben Stokes and Jack Leach celebrate victory in the test match by 1 wicket after Stokes had hit the winning runs during day four of the 3rd Ashes Test Match between England and Australia at Headingley on August 25, 2019 in Leeds, England. (Picture: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

He can chip in with reverse swing when the ball is old and will strengthen a slip cordon weakened by his absence.

Stokes will inspire, coax, rally and cajole and take no backward step in the cauldron of battle.

He is the sort of Pom that Australians respect – combative, crowd-pleasing and capable not only of copping a load but dishing it back.

Stokes’s return is not really a shock, even though the timing of it perhaps caught some off guard.

England's Ben Stokes, who has been added to England’s squad for the Ashes tour of Australia, the England and Wales Cricket Board has announced. (Picture: Jon Super/PA Wire)

Speculation that he would feature in the series at some point, having been left out of the original squad due to mental health issues and ongoing problems with his left index finger, had intensified after he posted social media images of himself in the nets, and it does make sense for everyone to know where they stand now rather than for Stokes to be parachuted in midway through the series with all of the attendant pressure and scrutiny.

Crucially, a successful second operation on the finger that he broke at the Indian Premier League in April seems to have done the trick, leading to an all-clear from his consultant and the England medical staff, lifting his mood in the process.

Although Stokes did return to action after initial surgery, he was still in lingering discomfort and took an unspecified break from the game in late July, missing the Test series against India and the ongoing T20 World Cup. Now, with his finger healed and his head in the right place, after several years of constant cricket, the impositions of bubble life and, of course, the death of his father, Stokes has the air of a man who means business.

He has not played in Australia since the tour eight years ago, when he made a hundred at Perth on only his second Test appearance, having missed the 2017-18 tour due to the Bristol episode. Stokes’s return is good for himself, first and foremost, for his health is clearly the most important thing, for Root and for England head coach Chris Silverwood and also for the series.

Ben Stokes has been added to England's squad for the Ashes tour of Australia, the England and Wales Cricket Board has announced. (Picture: David Davies/PA Wire)

An Ashes series without Stokes is like Hamlet without the prince, and for all that the Australians will be privately worried by what he might do, it is clearly good for the contest and also for the Australian public to see a great player in the flesh, a public that will no doubt appreciate his skills even while they are busily barracking him in the usual Ashes fashion.

In addition to announcing “I’m ready for Australia”, Stokes was quoted in the official press release as saying: “I am looking forward to seeing my mates and being on the field with them.”

This is not insignificant. As a team man first and foremost, Stokes would not want to let anyone down, even though he has let no one down by taking a break. Small wonder that Root considers him his right-hand man, and although England still go into the series as second favourites, Stokes’s return has at least lifted the spirits of a nation which now has more reason to tune in through the dead of night on December 8.