England’s preparations for the Test series continue to be nightmarish. The grimmest news came on Christmas Eve when it was announced that Ben Stokes’s father, in Johannesburg to watch the Test on Boxing Day, was in a “critical condition” in hospital. On Christmas Day the ECB issued an update that was sufficiently positive to allow Ben Stokes to join his colleagues for their final practice session before the series. His father, it said, had “shown signs of improvement. He remains in intensive care and is now in a stable condition.”
This enhanced the likelihood of Stokes playing in the Test at Centurion but selection problems still remained for Joe Root. Three players, Jack Leach, Chris Woakes and the most recent victim of the flu bug, Ollie Pope, were not fit enough to train on Christmas Day, which means that this trio are highly unlikely to be available for selection.
Root is doing his best to remain sanguine amid the chaos, recognising that the wellbeing of the Stokes family is far more important than a game of cricket. He stressed that “everyone should respect the privacy of Stokes and his family” and he added that it was “crucial” for the squad to support them all – Stokes’ mother, brother and wife are also in Johannesburg.
“That comes first”, said Root. “It put things in perspective. We’re here to play good hard cricket and to win the series but most importantly we want to make sure Ben and his family get all the support they can get.” That is what the tour party have been doing.
The latest casualty, Pope, was suffering from the same symptoms as the rest. His likely absence opens the way for Jonny Bairstow to return to the Test team after being dropped for the two Tests in New Zealand. Root has tried to remain upbeat. “We have got extra people here and it’s a good squad that enables us to put out a competitive team come what may. It’s frustrating but we have to handle it.”
Despite South Africa’s recent record – five Test defeats in succession – and the issues over the running of their game Root expects tough opposition. “I have never encountered a South African team that does not play with pride and passion. And I expect nothing different at Centurion. They are good in their own conditions.”
There are so many complications about the fitness and availability of so many players that England opted to delay the announcement of their final XI until the morning of the match. The vast majority of the 19 cricketers here have a chance of playing. Any tactical niceties have long since given way to the whims of the flu bug.