Rest will keep the fire stoked

Chris Stocks highlights the importance of protecting star player Ben Stokes from the risk of burnout

After returning to England’s team for Wednesday’s first ODI against South Africa at Headingley, Ben Stokes could, in theory, play another 46 games for his country before the start of next year’s Indian Premier League (as of Friday May 26).

Given he has just come back from that tournament crowned its Most Valuable Player there is no doubt the 25-year-old will return to India next year.

Stokes more than justified the £1.7million Rising Pune Supergiant paid for his services. That was the highest amount an overseas cricketer had fetched in IPL history but Stokes can now look forward to landing an even bigger payday – surely in excess of £2m – when he goes into next year’s auction.

That is fantastic news for a player who this week spoke enthusiastically about his adventure in India. But the issue of burning out their brightest talent in Stokes is a live one for England. That message was hammered home when Stokes limped off with pain in his left knee during South Africa’s run chase at Headingley.

Eoin Morgan, England’s captain, offered reassuring words after the match, confirming Stokes was fit to bowl whenhe subsequently returned to the field. He added: “I felt bowling him again even though he was fit wasn’t worth the risk. There are no significant signs of an injury, but we’ll assess that in the next couple of days.”

The sight of Stokes leaving the field was still a major concern. Something has to give in the next 11 months or so and it will be up to director of cricket Andrew Strauss and coach Trevor Bayliss to determine what. Of those potential 46 matches between now and the end of the tour of New Zealand in April 2018, 14 are Tests – four against South Africa this summer, three against West Indies, five in Australia and two in New Zealand.

The South Africa series and the Ashes are non-negotiable. England will be relying on Stokes to help them win those two huge series.

There are then 32 white-ball matches Stokes and other leading England stars who play all formats could be rested from. The Champions Trophy, starting next week, will obviously see England select their strongest team possible.

That tournament could see England play five matches if they reach the final. It’s not a huge workload. But the three T20 internationals against South Africa that follow, perhaps one of the West Indies Tests – excluding the historic day-nighter at Edgbaston that will work as a warm-up for the Adelaide pink-ball Test in December – and the single T20 and five ODIs against the same opposition that follow are ripe for rotation.

Of the remaining matches, there are ODI series in Australia and New Zealand and a T20 Tri-Series against the same opposition. The 50-over matches will be a useful barometer of where this team are. The T20s might be expendable for the likes of Stokes, Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali and Joe Root. But Stokes, who as an all-rounder is the one England player most susceptible to burnout and injury, must be protected.

Having already played 14 IPL matches following a winter that included arduous tours of Bangladesh and India, it’s no wonder Stokes is susceptible to injury scares. Speaking before the Headingley ODI, Stokes was keen to reassure everyone that he is keen to represent England in as many games as possible.

“The last eight to ten months have been very full on,” he said. “But you just look at it as playing a sport that I love. The schedule is very tight and jam-packedbut I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

Can he keep it up? “I certainly like to think so, but obviously the body is a different thing to what the mind is,” he says. “We just have to see how the body copes with everything. I certainly hope that fitness-wise I’ll be able to play everything in the next two or three years.”

If that not only seems wildly optimistic but reckless then rest assured that Stokes will be well looked after by England. As for feeling fatigued after his recent exploits in India, Stokes said: “Sometimes when you have three or four weeks off getting back into it is harder than playing non-stop because your body just doesn’t get used to the competiveness of batting, bowling, the stress on your legs fielding for a day.

“So actually having the solid foundation of lots of cricket can be the best thing. You take your rest in between games. I’m raring to go.”

England will hope he feels the same – both physically and mentally – heading into the Ashes this winter.

However, Wednesday’s injury scare in Leeds flagged up the fact that is far from guaranteed.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, May 26 2017

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