Speaking in the Long Room before the serried ranks of the media ahead of England’s departure to contest the Ashes, Root admitted that they are already planning to be without Ben Stokes for the duration of the series. He also had to fend off questions about whether England have a problem with drinking, after Stokes’ altercation on a night out in Bristol left him under investigation by the police, while countering the suggestion that the tourists will need a “miracle” to defend the Urn in a country where they were ruthlessly whitewashed (and Root was dropped) four years ago.
This was all before considering the contributions from the other side, with David Warner last week posing as an Australian Sun Tzu and likening the Ashes to warfare – “I don’t think I would ever put cricket and war in the same bracket,” was Root’s measured response. Sadly he didn’t follow up, in the manner of Ivo Bligh, by saying that England were off to “beard the kangaroo in his den” when they fly on Saturday.
Stokes will not be on the plane with them, with the police case still open and internal disciplinary procedures on hold for now. England’s vice-captain is currently “not considered for selection” and the subject is likely to loom over the tour – his counterpart, Warner, has aired his views on that, too – but Root wanted to focus on the players at his disposal.
“I think we’ve got to plan as if he’s not going to be there for the whole series,” Root said. “It’s an ongoing investigation, we’re very much in the dark in what’s happening, as is everyone. So as a side we have to make sure we plan accordingly and approach this as our squad.
“Ben offers a lot to the team but, as I said, it’s an opportunity for other guys to stand up. In difficult situations, a lot of the time, people do surprise themselves and surprise you and are capable of more than what they might even think themselves. This is one of those occasions when you might just see that and there’s also some guys that have been given another opportunity, who will be desperate to take that. As a side I look at where we are and how we’ve grown as a team and think that this is a great opportunity for us to keep developing and move forward again.”
Root is close to Stokes, who he described in his autobiography as a “good friend as well as a team-mate”, and the two led from the front as England secured series wins over South Africa and West Indies this summer. Root also noted in his book that Stokes had been capable of some “daft stuff” in the past and he could be forgiven for wishing away this latest episode, coming ahead of his biggest challenge as captain since succeeding Alastair Cook earlier in the year.
He held his counsel, however, when asked if Stokes’ actions had angered him: “That’s between me and Ben, being brutally honest. That should stay between us. It is disappointing that he’s not going to be on the trip but you have to move on and move forward as a team. He’s obviously very disappointed but I can’t speak for him.”
Alongside the matter of Stokes and Alex Hales being out late in Bristol, England issued written warnings and fines to Jonny Bairstow, Jake Ball and Liam Plunkett for unprofessional conduct during the ODI series against West Indies. Root, while stressing that the players were grown-up enough to ensure similar problems don’t arise in Australia, said it was not the plan to keep everyone “cooped up” while on tour.
“At no point did we say they would be,” he said. “That would be a negative way to go about touring what is a great country. Being able to enjoy touring Australia, it is really important go and enjoy the downtime we do get and enjoy the whole nature of touring – the atmosphere of the grounds, the people around the grounds and when you go out for food, the banter that might be flying around and embrace it, because you don’t get many opportunities to go and play in an Ashes series in Australia. It’s something you want to look back on and say you approached it in the right way and gave yourself the best chance to be successful and hopefully come away with some fantastic memories.”
Root’s memories of 2013-14 were less than fantastic but he credits being left out for the fifth and final Test in Sydney as one of the catalysts for his subsequent rise to stand among the best currently playing the game. Despite the pressure he and his team will be under this time around, the boyish smile returns with a flicker when he gets back to the topic of cricket.
“It was hard. It was a tough tour all round. That’s a great motivation for this one. You want to make sure you have completely different memories. It’s a great place to go and play cricket, the pitches are fantastic and it can be a good place to go and bat, and score big runs. I don’t think we should be daunted by the chat and the noise that can be around an Ashes tour. We should be excited about the opportunity and everything that presents, and try and prove a lot of people wrong over there.”
While Stokes has provided an off-field distraction, England finished their home season with several on-field issues to ponder before getting to Australia. An already holey batting line-up looks like needing another plug at No. 6 – though it could be a bowler who comes in, with everyone else moving up – but Root and Trevor Bayliss will address those issues in the warm-up games, starting against a Western Australia XI next week.
A Stokes-less England may look a lot less daunting, even if they arrive as the higher-ranked Test side – at No. 3, two spots above Australia – but Root did not waste the chance to get forward and dispatch a gentle half-volley when asserting they can “definitely” win the series.
“We’ve played some really strong cricket this summer, coming together really well as a squad and hopefully we can carry that forward,” he said. “There are some new faces within the squad but that gives them opportunities to stamp their mark on the game and really push their case in Test cricket, and also for other guys to stand up and become more senior hopefully we can put in some really good performances and do something special.”