Stokes delivers telling blow to Ashes hopes – sports editor’s blog

The victorious England players celebrate their Ashes win in 2015. Mark Wood (second left) and Jos Buttler (right) were notable omissions from the 2017 Ashes squad EMN-170910-120424002

If any Australian cricketer falls for England’s fiendishly clever hoax, well they’d have to be thicker than Merv Hughes’ moustache.

There surely can’t be any other explanation for the ongoing sitcom that is England’s Ashes preparations.

Nathan Lyon has his stumps flattened at Trent Bridge by Mark Wood as England regain the Ashes in 2015 EMN-170910-120633002

With the hosts convinced the latest touring party are completely inept, the real England will be unleased once ashore to steamroller their expertly-lulled opponents.

At least that’s the flimsy, final piece of hope I’m clinging to.

In my lifetime, no sporting entity has carried off self-inflicted wounds and darkly comic collateral damage as effortlessly as the England cricket team.

The seeds of pessimism were sown even before Ben Stokes went looking for a few late-night sharpeners in Bristol.

Hope begun to evaporate the moment our squad was announced, or should I say leaked - aptly maintaining the overall sense of farce.

Just a few years back, our selectors were a little more conservative, opting for the safety of what you know.

It seemed not even the driest of run droughts or wicketless spells could unseat the ensconced clique.

But back then their cup runneth over. England had a fine team in all departments, with top-class replacements for every position ready to slot in.

It’s ironic then, that now positions have opened up, the alternatives which once sprang so quickly to mind, are not so obvious.

Selection of an opener to partner Alistair Cook has long been a revolving door, but this summer the uncertainty spread.

Suddenly, the top and middle order became the subject of more experimentation than a school laboratory.

More and more spots became available; it was like going back in time.

My formative England cricket-watching years came in an age of manic chop and change.

Players would be dropped for one or two bad performances, recalled after a few good county knocks – replacing the poor goon who had failed on debut - and then dropped again.

It was a system which piled on the pressure, smashed confidence and eventually sent the team tumbling to the bottom of the world rankings.

Three captains were fielded in one particularly infamous five-test series - none changed through injury.

I’m all for a bit of adventure, but taking three debutants to Australia this month, alongside several others with a handful of Test caps, for the most demanding tour of all, seems less about adventure and more about keeping fingers crossed.

While I could bang on for several pages about individual selections and non-selections, the exclusion of Jos Buttler as back-up to wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow, seems the oddest decision of all.

Particularly when the alternative is another Test match virgin, Ben Foakes.

Buttler’s wicketkeeping seemed to be approaching the level of his great batting potential in the Test side, until he became sidelined as a whiteball specialist.

With the batting reserves hardly overflowing, perhaps a better gamble would be to start both Bairstow and Buttler, particularly if other explosive batsmen are, ahem, unavailable.

Yet despite the weak squad, I still couldn’t shake the idea that Stokes would be our saviour.

This would be the series where a star became a superstar, a la Flintoff in 2005, taking a Bothamesque wrecking ball to the Australian hopes, and single-handedly keeping the Urn from their clutches for another few years.

The Ashes tour is cut out for combative players like Stokes.

But now that flame has been extinguished, the spectre of another miserable winter hiding seems hideously real.

With the plodding efficiency of the British justice system, there is a very real danger Stokes will still be required in the UK when his team-mates are toiling away down under.

Even if the wheels are greased and he is cleared to play, it seems likely the saga will leave mental scars.

And if there’s ever a team you don’t want to face with visible scars and weakness, it’s Australia. Don’t expect sympathy.

It’s impossible for a squad not to be weakened without a player like Stokes.

But his potential absence has been magnified so much more by the inexperience of the squad selected. And that was avoidable.

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