England are facing an injury crisis ahead of the third Test against the West Indies with the news that Ben Stokes is a doubt with a bruised heel. Stokes missed training at the Darren Sammy Stadium on Thursday, and with Ben Foakes and Chris Woakes also nursing injuries, England may be forced into a wholesale reshuffle that could even see a sudden recall for Keaton Jennings.
Stokes did not go for a scan, and the hope within the England camp is that he will still be able to play on Saturday as England try to salvage some pride with with the series already lost. But given his significant bowling workload during the first two Tests, as well as the fact the importance of keeping him fit ahead of a seismic year for English cricket in all formats, it remains possible that England will opt on the side of caution, especially if he fails to train again on Friday.
Foakes did train after missing part of the second Test with a hand injury, but he is still experiencing pain and his participation is by no means guaranteed either. Woakes is also a serious doubt with a recurring knee injury, and so if the holy trinity of Stokes, Foakes and Woakes are all unavailable, then the middle order will require some serious surgery.
The absence of Stokes would leave England both a bowler and a batsman light, and although Moeen Ali could move up to No6, Foakes’s injury would complicate things still further. In that case Jonny Bairstow would take the gloves, and would probably need to drop down from No3 as a result. That could lead to a sensational recall for Jennings, who was dropped after the first Test and appeared to be destined for a long, indefinite spell in county cricket.
That scenario would see Joe Denly move down to No3, Bairstow dropping to No5 behind Joe Root, and Sam Curran retained at No8 with Mark Wood coming in as a fourth seamer. Another option is that Stokes is available as a batsman only, which would probably see captain Joe Root move back up to No3, with Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Stokes behind him.
It is, whichever way you look at it, a bit of a mess, one partly attributable to misfortune but also to entirely foreseeable problems. Root’s over-bowling of Stokes during the West Indies’ marathon second innings in Barbados is one factor, along with the basic fluidity of a batting line-up in which players are corralled into multiple roles, shifting constantly, and thus England have not the slightest idea what their best XI is from game to game, or sometimes even innings to innings.
Still, Buttler was putting a brave face on things when he addressed the media on Thursday afternoon. England have received several rockets from coach Trevor Bayliss in the wake of their collapse in this series, both in public and in private, and after their coach’s assessment that England had lacked “guts and determination” and shown no “will to fight”, Buttler said those words would spur England into an improvement performance in St Lucia.
There is only pride to be played for in the final Test, but England have plenty of that to recover. Losing to an excellent West Indies side in their own conditions is one thing. But being thrashed twice in two weeks and being accused of a lack of stomach by their own coach: well, that’s the sort of thing that’s going to rankle a little.
“As a player, when those kinds of things are questioned, it can hurt your pride,” Buttler said. “You want to prove him wrong. It has been a really disappointing tour so far. We have played well under what we are capable of. We’ve not been able to soak up the pressure West Indies have put on us. We haven’t got anything going in terms of partnerships or anyone making a score, batting for periods of time. Those are the areas we need to improve this week.”
Buttler suggested that England would reassess the attacking approach that has defined their batting over the last year, but has come badly unstuck here, with 40 wickets falling for just 642 runs. “There hasn’t been an obvious approach, really, has there?” he admitted. “I don’t think the approach is completely obvious when you collapse like that. You’re always trying to adapt to conditions and play the situation accordingly, and we’ve been way off with that. We have to be smarter.
“Being bold and attacking has paid dividends. But the real skill is to adapt to those conditions better than the opposition. You’re always reviewing that. Are we getting that balance quite right? You’re looking for that perfect sweet spot in performance and tempo, and that’s another area the team can improve.”
As for the West Indies, it’s foot-on-the-throat time. St Lucia has a reputation as one of the best fast-bowling surfaces in the Caribbean, and with the extremely rapid Oshane Thomas in line to replace captain Jason Holder, who is suspended for over-rate offences, Shannon Gabriel was looking forward to letting rip against the English once more. “This wicket usually tends to assist the fast bowlers,” he said. “I think we can exploit that.”
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