The Ashes will still have an edge to them, says Ben Stokes
Ben Stokes expects a healthy dose of white line fever to keep tensions high during the Ashes, guaranteeing “some sort of theatre” between England and Australia.
Australia have worked hard at cleaning up their image after the nadir of last year’s sandpaper scandal, with an overt emphasis on team culture and on-field behaviour.
Their overhaul is more about ethos than personnel though, with all the three of the individuals involved in the ball-tampering conspiracy – Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft – in line to return to the Test side for the first time since events in Cape Town.
Stokes, who shared the Rajasthan Royals dressing room with Smith during this year’s Indian Premier League, has noted their change in approach but would not be surprised to see things flare up in the heat of battle.
“It is weird Aussies trying to be nice to you,” he said with a smile after rain forced England to train indoors at Edgbaston.
“But I think once you get out in the middle and cross the white line the real competitive side of both teams will come out. The Ashes are the biggest Test series played in the world. There is always something that happens between teams in Ashes series and I don’t think this will be any different.
“Both teams are desperate to win, both sets of players are desperate to perform because Ashes series are where you get looked at. It is where you are scrutinised or criticised more or, if you do well, you get more praise.
“Everyone knows that as well, all 22 guys know that, so I can assure you there will be some sort of theatre that goes on out there.”
Stokes has been on a redemptive path of his own over the past 12 months – though he has made it clear in the past he dislikes the notion.
In a fortnight it will be exactly the anniversary of his acquittal on a charge of affray, following a late-night brawl in Bristol that saw him axed from an Ashes tour and stripped of the vice-captaincy. Now he has his chance to help win back the urn and do so as Joe Root’s right-hand man, having been restored to his previous position.
“What I’ve always tried to do is in the past is to take all the little pressures off Joe’s shoulders,” he said of the his role as deputy.
“He’s captain and all the pressures he has are enormous. In an Ashes series that goes up 50 per cent. There are other little things that can affect a captain mentally so anything I can do to help him, I will.”
It has been four years since Stokes played the last of his nine Tests against Australia but he remembers well how it feels to be on the eve of a series against the old enemy.
“The night before is the worst, (needing) sleeping pills is the best way to describe it,” he said.
“You’re anxious, there’s excitement. It’s one of the greatest sporting environments you can be in, the first morning of an Ashes series.
“It’s hard to explain, you can only really explain it when you’re out there. It is awesome.
“You can’t feel your way into any Ashes series – you have to hit the ground running. There’s no time for easing into a spell or finding your way with the bat, you have to be switched on from ball one.”
Joe Denly, meanwhile, had no qualms when Root pulled rank on him to claim the No 3 spot in England’s Ashes line-up and expects this week’s encounter at Edgbaston to be the pinnacle of his career.
Root approached head coach Trevor Bayliss after last week’s Ireland Test and volunteered to reclaim the key position.
Bayliss has long been keen for Root to accept the responsibility and he has now shelved his concerns in a bid to bolster a top order that has too often looked light on both runs and experience.
As a result, Denly will move down a place against Australia, his third different slot in four appearances at the highest level.
Far from feeling slighted, the 33-year-old was merely happy to hear he would be part of the team that will lead England’s battle to reclaim the urn.
“Rooty rang me the other day and told me he wanted to bat No 3 and wanted me to go in at No 4. It was as simple as that,” he said.
“He just wants to get involved in the game, get up there and out in the middle, and hopefully get a lot of runs. I don’t think there’s any more to it than that.
“I wasn’t too fussed really where I was batting, it’s just great to be in that XI. I’ve batted at four before when playing for Kent and throughout my career, so it wasn’t really a big issue, I’m just happy to be playing.
“I’m really excited to get going in what will probably be the highlight of my career.
“Everyone from a young age dreams of playing in an Ashes series and to finally get that chance, being quite an old campaigner, I’m certainly excited and up for the challenge.”