Stuart Rayner: Odd for England to overlook one bright light of miserable Ashes

As a new England era begins, it is disappointing Ben Stokes will not be there at the start of it, reflects Stuart Rayner

Durham all-rounder Ben Stokes
Durham all-rounder Ben Stokes

Ben Stokes’ omission from England’s first Test squad of their new era was a surprise.

Stokes was the one shining light of a gloomy winter Ashes series, top of the batting averages, second in the bowling averages, the only Englishman to score a century, and one of only two bowlers to claim a five-wicket haul.

When England’s whitewash was completed, you would have got very long odds indeed on Stokes being available for the first Test of the summer, but not selected.

The England selectors are not convinced Stokes has fully recovered from the wrist he petulantly broke punching a locker after being out for a golden duck in the West Indies in March.

Stokes has played two County Championship matches and two Twenty20 games for Durham’s first team since.

In many ways it is a sensible approach. Better to have Stokes fully fit, confident and on top of his game than searching for form in the Test arena.

It would make a great deal of sense were Stuart Broad (pictured right) and Matt Prior not in the 12-man squad named yesterday. Like Stokes, Broad has also played two Championship matches since suffering tendonitis of the knee after the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh. They made their comeback in the same game at Trent Bridge. Both have taken five wickets, and conceded a similar number of runs (Stokes 161, Broad 177).

But only Broad is in the squad.

Broad has got through an extra 18 overs, but he has not played any Twenty20 or second team cricket, so the two are about equal.

It is not just about numbers. You cannot simply get up to Test standard simply by bowling or batting.

In truth, Stokes was probably not quite there in this week’s match against Middlesex, although neither was Broad the previous week.

“In the first game I joked he wasn’t bowling as quickly as I was but you could tell by the way the ball’s carrying through now he’s got that extra bit of zip,” said Paul Collingwood, the former England all-rounder who fields at slip for Durham.

When I spoke to Stokes on Wednesday, he was convinced he was ready to be selected and hopeful he would be.

The 23-year-old is the sort of competitor whose game moves up a notch or two the bigger the occasion, and walking through the Lord’s Long Room wearing the Three Lions on Thursday after another week in the nets would almost certainly have got him to where he needed to be.

Not that Durham should complain. Stokes will face Lancashire in the Championship a week on Sunday and, with a point to prove, will more than likely be the man of the match.

England are obviously hoping the same is true of Broad and Prior, but to cling to two members of the old guard at a time they are revamping the side does not necessarily send out a good message. Players should not be ditched simply for the sake of change, but all England’s winter Ashes squad needed to make a strong case to keep their place this season and Prior in particular has not had a chance.

A niggling Achilles problem means he has kept wicket for just 172 overs since Christmas. It is nowherenear enough for the rigours of back-to-back five-day Test matches.

Scott Borthwick is another of the new guard to lose his place.

The Durham leg-spinner played the fifth Test in Sydney as Graeme Swann’s chosen long-term successor. But although he scored a brilliant 213 against Middlesex this week, his bowling has not justified his retention, even with Monty Panesar on such a seemingly unstoppable path of self-destruction. Troubled by finger injuries, he has taken just four Championship wickets in 2014.

His place goes to Moeen Ali, one of three new caps along with Sam Robson and Chris Jordan.

There is also a recall for Liam Plunkett, whose career has been revitalised since he left Durham for Yorkshire in the winter of 2012-13. His bowling and batting have returned to the levels he showed when he last played Test cricket seven years ago, and his fielding has always been brilliant.

With Peter Moores installed as coach, this is the start of a new era. It is a pity Stokes was not there at the start.

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David Whetstone
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Mark Douglas
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Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer