Ben Stokes has insisted he has no ambitions to lead England and has given unconditional support to captain Joe Root and coach Chris Silverwood ahead of the fourth Ashes Test at the SCG.
On a day when Covid’s net seemed to close in ever more tightly, with Silverwood himself testing positive for the virus, and England facing two local net bowlers who had to be withdrawn after their lateral-flow tests returned positive results, Stokes played down suggestions he wanted to make the step up from the vice-captaincy.
‘I’ve never really had an ambition to be a captain,’ he said. ‘That’s totally Joe’s decision. He shouldn’t be forced into doing it.
Ben Stokes (right) has offered his backing to Joe Root (left) to continue as England’s captain
Under-fire England coach Chris Silverwood was also supported by Stokes despite the Ashes debacle that sees the team 3-0 down with two Tests to play
‘I’m sure Cooky felt the same way. He did it for so long: when he knew his time was up, his time was up. Those discussions haven’t been entered into anywhere near Joe yet.
‘Captaincy is more than about setting fields, picking the team, making decisions out there in the middle. A captain is someone you want to go out and play for. Joe Root is someone I always want to play for.’
Stokes, who has led his country in one Test against West Indies when Root was on paternity leave, and three ODIs against Pakistan last summer when England were hit by a Covid outbreak, has always been a fiercely loyal member of the dressing-room.
That may explain his unconditional backing of Silverwood, who was already in isolation in Melbourne because a family member had tested positive when his own diagnosis came through; a third member of his family has also caught the virus.
Stokes did captain England against West Indies in 2020 with Root away on paternity leave
He also captained a weakened England one-day side to a 3-0 series win over Pakistan in 2021
And while Silverwood is likely to be one of the first casualties of England’s dismal Ashes campaign, Stokes moved quickly to his defence.
‘He’s a real players’ coach,’ he said. ‘He stands up for you as individuals and players. Chris and Joe know full well they have the support of everyone in there, and that’s all that matters.’
Stokes has lacked his usual verve on his return to international cricket after a break to look after his mental health and injured finger, averaging 16 with the bat in the first three Tests and 62 with the ball.
He has even been overtaken in the ICC’s Test all-rounder rankings by Australia’s No 9 Mitchell Starc.
And while he described his own performances as ‘pretty average’, he also admitted there have been times in the series when he has been at a loss to know how to deal with Australia’s bowlers.
Stokes described his own performances so far during the Ashes as ‘pretty average’
Mitchell Starc celebrates taking Stokes’s wicket during the second innings at Melbourne
‘When I look back at that hour we had to last before the close of play at Melbourne, with Pat [Cummins] and Mitch Starc bowling, even I was watching that going, “I don’t know what I would do to counteract that.”
‘That was some of the highest-quality bowling I think I’ve seen in a Test match. I don’t think I’ve ever been booed by 49,000 people when I walked out.
‘I actually said to some of the guys the next morning it’s the first time I’ve been taken aback by an atmosphere in a ground. Although we were on the receiving end, it was pretty special to feel that at the MCG.’
Stokes was speaking after England removed all net bowlers from their practice session on Sunday morning after learning of the positive tests. But they continued to train, with Root at one point taking on throwdown duties himself.
Stokes celebrates the wicket of Alex Carey during England’s third Test loss at the MCG
New rules in Australia mean you are classified as a close contact only if you have spent at least four hours with a confirmed case in a household setting.
Cricket Australia later said the two bowlers had recently recovered from Covid, and ‘therefore did not pose any risk to the England playing group’.
But they admitted the bowlers should not have been allowed in the nets until their results had come back.
Even so, on Sunday afternoon, England’s players underwent their seventh set of Covid tests in eight days.
That followed news that former ODI captain Adam Hollioake’s hopes of helping out at net sessions had been scuppered because of a close contact, after he made the 520-mile trip from the Gold Coast by road. He is now in isolation at the team hotel.
Meanwhile, former Australian seamer Glenn McGrath has tested positive, ruling him out of the traditional build-up to a game that has turned pink ever since January 2009, raising money for the McGrath Foundation following the death of his first wife, Jane, from breast cancer.