There is no question that England must look after Ben Stokes during this Ashes, but as long as he comes through his mental and physical tests, he must play at the Gabba next week.
An away Ashes is more demanding than anything else in cricket because of the conditions, opposition, crowds and travel. And Covid restrictions have added an extra element. If you are not fully up for the fight, Australia is not the place to be.
Coach Chris Silverwood and England director Ashley Giles have said they will not rush Ben back. That is the right approach. They have to show a duty of care to someone who has not played since July because of his broken finger and to protect his mental wellbeing.
Nasser Hussain hopes Ben Stokes will be picked for the First Test of the Ashes in Brisbane
But in an iconic series when you need your toughest characters and the type of cricketer who will stand toe to toe with the Australians, Stokes is a must-pick for Brisbane on Wednesday.
Just look at the type of players who have succeeded against Australia. Ian Botham, Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Flintoff and, lest we forget, Stokes himself so famously at Headingley in the last Ashes. They never took a backward step. So Joe Root will be desperate to have Stokes in his side at the Gabba.
Root will have Jos Buttler one side of him and on the other he will want his talismanic figure, the man who will constantly be urging him to take the aggressive option. That man is Stokes.
Root can be conservative and, yes, there will be times when he has to ‘sit in’ against Australia. But England’s attitude changes when Stokes is around.
Chris Silverwood (pictured) and Ashley Giles said they won’t hurry Stokes back into action
It’s hard to imagine Root not going for that run chase against New Zealand at Lord’s last summer if Ben had been there. I’m sure Stokes would have been saying, ‘Come on skip, let’s at least have a look at this’.
I would bat Stokes at six at the Gabba. I always find it a little odd for batters to come in after an all-rounder, so the time has come for Ollie Pope or Jonny Bairstow to bat at five followed by Stokes and then Buttler.
And if he doesn’t play now, when will Stokes get into nick? They are playing all five Ashes Tests back to back and there will be no other warm-up opportunities for him. He can take time to get back into the rhythm of batting, so it won’t be easy. The sooner he starts playing, the quicker he will be up to speed.
Where England have to be very careful is in limiting the overs Stokes bowls.
That can be difficult because whatever Stokes does, he does it full-on. So Root and Silverwood will have to be very strict, talk to the medical people and Stokes himself. If it means restricting him to 10 overs a day, so be it.
This lad has missed so much cricket and the rain in Queensland means he hasn’t even been able to get much time in the two warm-up games.
Stokes has missed a lot of cricket and has not been able to get much time in two warm-up games
So much of batting is a mental challenge, but bowling is very much a physical one and we know Ben won’t ease himself into the workload. The last thing we need is for him to be going into his 15th over of the day at the Gabba and his body snapping.
Indoor practice is not the same — and that’s pretty much all the bowlers have had to prepare.
Stokes must be England’s fifth bowler and there can be no repeats of the sort of two-hour stint he put in at Headingley in 2019 on the penultimate day against Australia.
There has been a suggestion Stokes will not take his position in the slip cordon to protect that left index finger and if that’s the case it will be a blow because they have missed him as much for his slip catching as anything else.
Ben is a brilliant catcher, so maybe he can still stand at slip against spin, but only he will know if that finger is strong enough to stand up to sharp nicks off pace.
He suffered the injury trying to take a catch in the outfield during the IPL and he could just as easily hurt it again in the deep as in the slips. You can’t completely wrap someone in cotton wool. There is always a risk in cricket.
Hussain says England should bat Stokes at six for the First Test at the Gabba next week
For that reason, we cannot be annoyed if Stokes plays in Brisbane and hurts himself in some way because he is under-cooked.
I just know that if I were Pat Cummins and was handed the England team sheet ahead of the toss in Brisbane, I would be looking straight away for the name Ben Stokes. If it wasn’t there, I would be delighted.
It’s not easy to switch on and off with the pressures around an Ashes tour. And with all the restrictions and the new Covid variant creating worries about lockdowns down the line, this tour will not be much fun.
But if anyone can put in a superhuman effort for England and score the weight of first-innings runs that will be crucial if they are to have a platform to win Test matches in Australia — that man is Stokes. A score of 300 may be enough to win a Test in England with the Duke’s ball, but in Australia with the Kookaburra it has to be 400-450 minimum.
I wouldn’t put it past Stokes to have a fantastic series.