England head into the third Test against India at Trent Bridge on Saturday a commanding 2-0 up having overpowered the tourists by an innings and 159 runs at Lord’s only last week but in a dilemma over Ben Stokes.
Stokes has long been England’s premier all-rounder and just hours after his acquittal on a charge of affray at Bristol Crown Court on Tuesday, he was added to a 13-man squad for Trent Bridge.
It would be extraordinary, if in keeping with much of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s handling of the saga since Stokes’s initial arrest nearly 11 months ago, were they now to leave him out of the final XI.
After all, it was only earlier this month that Stokes took four wickets as England completed a 31-run win in the first Test at Edgbaston, before a clash of dates with his trial saw him omitted at Lord’s.
Chris Woakes, his replacement at Lord’s, scored a maiden Test century and took key wickets at ‘the home of cricket’ so is unlikely to be dropped.
Woakes, like Stokes a pace-bowling all-rounder, has a superb record in England where in 13 Tests he averages 54 with the bat and 22 with the ball.
Jos Buttler may not have done much with the bat in the first two Tests but he but starred in England’s preceding series draw with Pakistan.
And for all that Trent Bridge favours seamers, England will be wary of dropping leg-spinner Adil Rashid and going in with an all pace attack.
It is six years since they last played a home Test without a frontline slow bowler.
If Rashid was omitted, England captain Joe Root might have to gamble on his part-time off-spin more than he might like.
Having given a debut to Ollie Pope as a number four at Lord’s, where he made 28, it would be harsh to drop him now.
– Curran under threat –
Which leaves Sam Curran in the firing line despite the variety his left-arm swing bowling brings to an otherwise all right-arm attack and the fact the 20-year-old is averaging 36 with the bat and 23 with the ball in a first season of Test cricket that includes a man-of-the-match display at Edgbaston.
Dropping Buttler, if England opt against fielding an unchanged team, might seem fairer but could leave Root with one paceman too many and one batsman too few.
No wonder England coach Trevor Bayliss, who on Thursday called on Stokes to give a public apology similar to the one already received by his team-mates, said it was a “difficult decision to make”.
With the Pataudi Trophy up for grabs and given their relatively light workload so far, it is unlikely either James Anderson or Stuart Broad gets rested, as was suggested could happen to the new-ball duo when there were pre-series fears over a schedule of five Tests in six weeks.
Anderson, England’s all-time leading Test wicket-taker, has 60 wickets at under 19 at Trent Bridge, while it is Broad’s home ground and the scene of his stunning eight for 15 that saw Australia shot out for just 60 three years ago.
India may call up Rishabh Pant in place of fellow wicket-keeper Dinesh Karthik in a bid to bolster their batting, while paceman Umesh Yadav, unlucky to be dropped in favour of left-arm wrist-spinner Kuldeep Yadav at Lord’s, could return.
Above all India will hope that captain and star batsman Virat Kohli, who scored 200 runs at Edgbaston including a superb 149, is fit after being plagued by back trouble at Lord’s.
India coach Ravi Shastri was upbeat about Kohli’s prospects on Thursday while urging a side with “no negative bone” to show some “grit” with the bat.