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Stokes health doubts overshadow England’s bid for NZ clean sweep

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LEEDS: England head into the third Test at Headingley on Thursday with doubts over the health of captain Ben Stokes as they chase a 3-0 series clean sweep against New Zealand.

Stokes missed training on Tuesday through illness, with a team spokesman saying the all-rounder tested negative for the Coronavirus and was being kept away from the squad as a precautionary measure.

New Zealand have had several positive cases in their squad during the tour, with Black Caps skipper Kane Williamson ruled out of the second Test.

As well as Williamson,

the tourists have also seen Henry Nicholls, Devon Conway, Michael Bracewell and two members of their backroom team return positive Covid-19 results in England.

All four players are fit and available to play in Leeds this week.

Williamson was a helpless spectator in Nottingham and being confined to his hotel room.

“I watched a lot of it, I didn’t have too much else to do,” said Williamson.

“I don’t shout at the TV, I watch and observe. It’s always interesting seeing it from a different perspective, although it wasn’t my preferable place to be. It was interesting to watch and connect from the other side a little bit.

“England are a strong side playing well so for us it’s about improving as a side, the bigger picture… The focus is on us and wanting to be better.”

England have yet to name a vice-captain since Stokes’ appointment. If he is unavailable, Stokes’ predecessor Joe Root could resume captaincy duties, although the way he has spoken of the mental toll leadership took on him may mean he is reluctant to take charge again, even on a temporary basis.

That would leave England facing a tricky decision if they want to make a senior figure such as James Anderson or Stuart Broad the stand-in captain at Headingley.

With England having already won the New Zealand series, the hosts may be tempted to rest at least one or other of their two all-time leading wicket-takers. England face a re-arranged finale to last year’s Covid-postponed Test series against India, starting at Edgbaston on July 1.

Meanwhile, Stokes has challenged his team to play without fear and put on a show against New Zealand at Headingley despite taking an unassailable 2-0 lead.

“We’ve obviously won the series but there are World Test Championship points to play for. We want to carry on with the way we’ve played,” Stokes told reporters on the eve of the third Test.

“I was pretty simple and clear in the dressing room. Let’s try and think like we’re in the entertainment business rather than the sporting business… there’s a reason why 20,000 people came out to watch us at Trent Bridge last week.

“So I set a challenge to the team to be even more fearless, positive and aggressive than last week.”

James Anderson, England record’s wicket-taker in Test cricket, has been ruled out due to an ankle problem, with Jamie Overton set to make his debut following his impressive start to the domestic season with Surrey.

Jamie will join twin brother Craig Overton in the squad giving the hosts additional pace bowling options.

No twins have yet played in the same England XI.

Jamie said: “It would feel pretty special. It’s a moment that we’ve always wanted.”

Stokes said he was hopeful Anderson can recover in time for the Test against India.

“It’s unfortunate for Jimmy, but we’ve got a massive Test against India coming up as well. I’m not too sure how serious it is to be honest. He’s just got a bit of a puffy ankle,” added the all-rounder.

“[Jamie] fills a different role from Jimmy, but to have someone in your back pocket who can bowl 90 miles an hour is big for us. That’s the only change this week.”

Stokes took over as captain after Joe Root’s resignation in April, which came on the heels of a series loss in the Caribbean and a disastrous Ashes tour of Australia.

The 31-year-old said his team hadn’t yet completed a turnaround and their character would truly be tested only after tasting defeat.

“We’re still yet to have a bad result. When things don’t go well is when the message we are trying to get across becomes more important,” said Stokes.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2022

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