Joe Root wants Ben Stokes to take as much time out from England duty as he needs after revealing how tough it was to see his friend struggling the last time they spoke.
Stokes has taken an indefinite break from cricket to “prioritise his mental wellbeing” and continue his rehabilitation from an ongoing finger injury in what represents a setback to England’s chances in the five-Test series against India that starts on Wednesday.
Those close to the situation are not currently expecting Stokes to return this summer and it is clear that Root, who has known the all-rounder since their days playing under-13s cricket against each other for Yorkshire and Cumbria, will not force the issue.
“From my point of view, I just want my friend to be OK,” said Root. “Anyone who knows Ben, he always puts other people first. Now is an opportunity for him to put himself first, to take time to look after himself and get to a good place again. Hopefully that can be sooner rather than later.
“Cricket has to be a secondary thought, a long way down the line, and he should take as much time as he needs. He’s got my full support on that and he’s been assured he’s got the full support of the ECB on that. And certainly, he’s got the whole team’s support. More than anything, we just want Ben to be OK. He’s got everyone behind him.
“I had a conversation with Ben and that’s when I found out. The call will stay between the two of us but for me, it was hard to see a friend like that. It’s important for people to respect his privacy to give him the best chance to deal with this in his own way.”
Victory over India at Trent Bridge this week would be Root’s 27th as England’s Test captain, surpassing the national record currently shared with Michael Vaughan. Just five have come without Stokes in the XI, however, underlining his importance to Root as both a genuine all-rounder and trusted vice-captain.
The additional loss of Chris Woakes, on the comeback trail from a bruised heel, means Sam Curran may have to bat as high as No 7, supported by Ollie Robinson at No 8, if the spin of Jack Leach is to be brought into the side while still retaining four seamers.
However this would also mean Jos Buttler returning for his first red-ball cricket since February and batting at No 6; with concerns about the top order after the 1-0 defeat to New Zealand in June, England may yet opt for caution and revert to just four bowlers.
Root said: “In my opinion, there’s no one that compares to Ben Stokes in world cricket. Obviously for a long time now, he’s been incredible, he’s the heartbeat of this team. [But] it does present opportunities for others to step up and put in big performances.”
Quite when Stokes returns is clearly hard to predict, not least given another relentless winter schedule that features a T20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates and an Ashes series in Australia, with trips to Pakistan and the Caribbean either side.
Some respite will likely be offered by the expected postponement of the white-ball tour of Bangladesh that was due to depart after the end of the India Test series, although the players with Indian Premier League deals may instead travel out to the UAE for the second half of the rescheduled tournament.
Little is guaranteed during the pandemic era and planning for the Ashes tour remains fraught with uncertainties too. England were due to play their entire warm-up period in Sydney before the first Test in Brisbane on 8 December, but there is growing expectation the local Covid situation will force them to move out of New South Wales.
Then there is the issue of whether families can join the players on that tour, with Root saying they are waiting to find out “the lay of the land” before any decisions are made.
He added: “What I will say is as players, going and playing in Australia, having the opportunity for England, to lift that urn, is one thing you dream about from being four or five years old. That does not change. Of course there are challenges, but everyone is desperate to be part of an Ashes series in Australia. It’s just at what cost.”
Clearly there is plenty clouding English minds at present and while India have announced that opener Mayank Agarwal is out of the first Test with concussion after being struck in the nets, the tourists seemingly head into the series in better shape.
“It could do,” replied Root, when asked if the next six months will define his captaincy. “But I can’t think about that because I need to focus on the here and now. We need to make a good start to this series and that’s all I can concentrate on right now.”