Bairstow and Stokes hold key to Ashes

The retirement of Alistair Cook, master of the sub-continent, and the failure upon failure of anyone to play alongside him meant there was a decent chance that this could have been a lean winter.

One of those winters where Geoffrey Boycott’s withering put-downs become more famous than the match, where England lose successive Tests by an innings after being bamboozled by a bloke nobody had ever heard of.

Ben Stokes can make something out of nothing in the field. Photo by Rex Features

To English delight, and slight surprise, the press is not bemoaning the loss of “Chef” or planning the public mission to get him back in time for the Ashes next summer. In fact, fans and press alike have gotten over him quite quickly.

Attention has now turned away from the openers to the rest of the messy batting line-up.

With Ben Stokes, Johnny Bairstow, Jos Butler, Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, and now Ben Foakes and Sam Curran, England have seven great all-rounders. However, it has felt for a while that there are simply too many who want to bat at six, seven and eight.

Foakes is a brilliant wicket keeper, Butler and Bairstow are brilliant in the field. While Stokes is a star who makes things happen, Sam Curran provides a left-arm option, and has a batting average of 36, alongside an impressive bowling average of 25.

Finally, Moeen Ali is turning into a very steady spinner, with already 163 wickets to his name and averaging 31 with the bat.

All of them can bat. But the dearth of talent on the County circuit, means some of them need to step up and be batsmen who bowl, not bowlers (or ‘keepers) who bat.

The two most senior of the all-rounders union, Stokes and Bairstow, have put their hands up.

Stokes has steadily improved from a man who hits a few boundaries before chipping his wicket to mid-off, to a Matthew Hayden-esque beast with a defence as bullish as his offence. He has had eight 50s and two 100s in his last 17 matches.

Meanwhile Bairstow, spurred on by losing the gloves to Ben Foakes, has shown signs that he is ready to be England’s next-best batsman after skipper Joe Root. The technique has always been there, but now at three without keeping to worry about, his value to the team may grow.

Has anyone been angrier than Bairstow to reach three figures? Photo by Rex Features

The point is not that they forget their other duties, but rather reconceive themselves as top-order batsmen. If they can do this, as early signs suggest they can, then England suddenly look a frighteningly solid, yet flexible team.

Indeed, with Bairstow at three and Stokes at six, England would then have a potential summer line-up which includes 10 centurions and still have five bowlers.

The Ashes throws up the potential for anything to happen, but with a settled top five, the luxury of Butler and Ali at six and seven, and variety beneath, Joe Root’s England might finally come out of their shell.

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