Sam Billings will make his third Test appearance against India on Friday after Ben Foakes was ruled out after having failed to recover from Covid-19. Billings is one of two changes as James Anderson returns after missing the final Test against New Zealand, regaining his spot from his replacement, Jamie Overton.
Foakes had to be pulled out on the fourth morning of the previous Test at Headingley after returning a positive test, having complained of back trouble on day three. Kent captain Billings made the late journey up to Leeds on the third evening, arriving at the team hotel at 2am. He became England’s first Covid substitute a matter of hours later, taking a catch off Jack Leach between his knees as England won by seven wickets to seal a 3-0 series win.
Billings was subsequently added to the squad for this fifth Test of this 2021 series at Edgbaston, primarily as cover to give Foakes every opportunity to play. Despite training on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Surrey wicketkeeper was unable to prove his fitness.
“Unfortunately Foakesy has not recovered as well as we’d have liked to,” Stokes said. “Sam is going to stay in the team and be our keeper.
“He [Foakes] just hasn’t really recovered from last week. He doesn’t feel like he could give the best account of himself this week, so we took the decision out of his hands and said, ‘get yourself better’.”
It was Bairstow who initially covered for Foakes when he was unable to take the field on day three at Headingley. Stokes, however, said there was no thought given to doing so again.
Much has been made of Bairstow’s affinity for the gloves, particularly given that all but one of his six Test centuries scored before the start of 2022 had come as the designated wicketkeeper. Since then, however, he has re-established himself as an engine-room destroyer, with four centuries and 774 runs already this year, at an average of 64.50.
Under Brendon McCullum and Stokes, Bairstow has become a totem of their selfless, attacking cricket, and both are keen to keep it that way, with Stokes reiterating Foakes’ position as the first-choice keeper.
“At the moment Jonny is in the form of his life. He’s our best middle-order batsman at the moment. Ben Foakes is our keeper going forward and we just want Jonny to concentrate on batting. Because however he is thinking about it at the moment is working, we just want Jonny to keep doing what he is doing with the bat.”
The return of Anderson was expected, especially as he said on Wednesday that he could have played the last New Zealand Test had the series still been at stake. Perhaps Overton might count himself unlucky to be the man to make way, however. He bowled quickly and relatively well, but excelled with the bat, striking a remarkable 97 as part of 241-run stand with Bairstow, rescuing England from a precarious 55 for six.
“That’s how sport at the top level can work sometimes,” Stokes said. “Obviously Jimmy didn’t feel he recovered as well as we would have liked to last week. So Jamie got his opportunity to show what you can do in a cricket field. He gave the best account possible of himself. And, he’s obviously someone that we see has a bright and long future for him going forward.
“So yeah, it obviously must be very disappointing for him, but he can walk away knowing that he’s done everything that he possibly could have done last week to really put his name forward to have a look a good career for England.”
With the Edgbaston Test against India set to complete the five-match series that had to be postponed in 2021 due to a Covid outbreak, England have effectively made seven changes to the team that trails 2-1 in the series after last year’s Oval Test. Rory Burns and Haseeb Hameed have since been replaced at the top of the order by Zak Crawley and Alex Lees, with Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes and Ollie Robinson the other absentees.
Stokes himself was one of the players who sat out last year’s matches, after taking a mental-health break from the game while recuperating from a badly broken finger. And while he said he had not watched much of the action last time around, he was under no doubt about the threat that India would pose, having also effectively switched captains mid-series, with Virat Kohli stepping down from the role.
“We just beat the best team in the world 3-0,” Stokes said, referencing New Zealand’s status as World Test Champions. “India are obviously a completely different opposition, a different dynamic of team, but we are concentrating on ourselves. We understand what we do well, but we have also take into account who we’re playing against. Just because the opposition changes doesn’t mean that we’re going to change.
“We still obviously know we need to win this Test to draw the series from a year ago. But as I said last week, at the moment this is bigger than results, bigger then what happens out on the field. There’s more to it than that. We obviously want to win every game that we play, but it’s bigger than that.”
Asked if England had it in them to get even more attacking in their approach, after three dynamic displays against New Zealand, Stokes replied: “If there’s a team that can, it’s us.”
Crawley is the one regular selection in England’s ranks who hasn’t produced a significant contribution to their run of three wins in a row. But Stokes was adamant that he would receive all the support he needs to rediscover his most imposing form, despite a top score of 43 in six innings.
“Before we’d even played a Test match, the squad was picked on the basis that every player in every position is the best player in England to carry us forward in the way that we want to,” Stokes said. “This team, and this squad, is going to be given a lot of time to perform. Zak Crawley is still in my plans, and Brendon’s plans going forward, to make this Test team great again.”