Ben Stokes says his fitness levels are back to their 2019 best and hopes to come good on a promise to his team-mates to fulfil his role as an allrounder this summer.
A chronic left knee injury has left England's Test captain managing his bowling output in recent years, in turn dulling the balance he brings to an XI. That came to a head at the end of the winter in New Zealand when Stokes admitted to feeling "incredibly frustrated" at being unable to operate as a fourth seamer, sending down just seven overs across two Tests.
Stokes left the second Test in Wellington vowing to get right during a stint in the IPL for Chennai Super Kings, receiving a cortisone injection in the knee before travelling out to India. He only made two appearances for the eventual champions, bowling just one wicketless over which went for 18.
While frustrated at the lack of game time, particularly as a marquee INR 16.25 crore (£1.6 million approx.) signing for the franchise, Stokes used time on the sidelines to regain fitness in conjunction with CSK's medical team and their ECB equivalents. And he believes his body is in the best possible place to contribute more with the ball, starting with Ireland on Thursday and into the five Ashes Tests this summer.
"I've been away in India for nine weeks and made a promise to myself and team-mates, in particular the bowlers, that I will be doing everything I possibly can to be in a position to fulfil that role," Stokes said. "I've done that.
"The knee is obviously in a much better place than was in Wellington. I've been in India for the IPL over the last nine to 10 weeks but what I have done is get myself into a position where I am not able to look back and regret or say I have not given myself the best opportunity to play a full role with the ball this summer.
"I have worked incredibly hard with the medical team in Chennai, who were liasing with the ECB guys, and got myself into a place where I feel like I am back at 2019, 2020 space in terms of my own body and fitness. I have definitely given myself the best opportunity, but the mind and body are different things. But yeah, I have given myself the best chance."
While by no means a prolific wicket-taker in 2019's 2-2 draw, with just eight dismissals at 45.25 apiece, Stokes' 95.1 overs held England's attack together. His 24.2 overs in Australia's second innings of the famous Headingley Test were most notable, though a spell of 3 for 56 that restricted the visitors to a lead of 358 was understandably overshadowed by the unbeaten 135 that followed.
Stokes has not ruled out further injections to get him through what will be a taxing period of six Test matches in eight weeks. There is a clear motivation to make amends after the last year and leave no stone unturned as he bids to operate at full capacity throughout the summer to replicate previous exploits.
"It has been a frustrating period for me, especially with the knee injury that has been hanging around. I know I won't look back on this series and regret any decisions that I had in the build-up period, because I've worked my nuts off.
"I've tried a lot. Especially over the winter. But the great thing that sport and being out in the arena gives you is adrenaline. So it gives you stuff you're able to do in a game that you probably would not be able to do with training. I might turn up every day and bowl like I have before this little niggle turned up."
Josh Tongue's 'X-factor' gave him selection edge
Meanwhile, Stokes explained the decision to go with uncapped Worcestershire seamer Josh Tongue over Chris Woakes as a chance to discover more about an unknown quantity.
Woakes, the Warwickshire allrounder, looked set to make the XI for the Lord's Test, particularly with his averages of 61.20 and 11.33 with bat and ball respectively at this venue. Tongue, however, has impressed in training, particularly with his pace from a greater point of release. After a strong showing on the recent Lions tour of Sri Lanka, he will become England men's Test cap No.711 on Thursday.
Stokes regards the 25-year-old as an 'X-factor" cricketer and wants to use the upcoming week to gauge Tongue's aptitude for this level. Though Woakes has not played a Test since March 2022, missing the whole of last summer with a left knee issue of his own, England did not feel the need to push him into action this week given what is to come.
"It was a hard decision to make," said Stokes. "We know Woakesy is a very experienced player and what he will offer this team when he plays. We see this as a great opportunity to see someone like Josh Tongue go out and play in a Test. We might need someone like him throughout the summer.
"It gives me an opportunity to see what his character is like and what he is like to operate with as a captain. Woakesy completely understood that. We won't plan too much because we don't know what will happen, but all the bowlers know they need to be prepared to play every game this summer. It's exciting we're able to see another pace bowler come through the ranks.
"Tonguey has been someone who has been spoken about even since he first came on and played for Worcestershire. He is someone who possesses a bit more pace than most of the guys who have been spoken about as the next guys in line and he's started off pretty well this year with Worcestershire as well.
"Having someone who is able to bowl with that extra pace so he can come on and change the way the game is going and have that 'X-factor', is always great to have in your side. I am looking forward to getting him involved and watching him get his Test cap tomorrow."