Ben Stokes took an indefinite break from cricket in July
Ben Stokes returned to the nets for the first time since July to add to hopes that he might yet feature in the Ashes as England confirmed that they are leaving their options open to bringing in reinforcements this winter.
"Great to be back hitting balls," Stokes posted on Instagram alongside training videos of him receiving throwdowns from England physiotherapist Craig De Weymarn.
The all-rounder took an indefinite break from the game in July to focus on his mental wellbeing and last week had a second surgical procedure on the finger he broke in April, only being able to grip a bat properly for the first time in six months on Monday.
Mo Bobat, England’s performance director, said: "It’s hugely positive and hugely exciting. Certainly it looks like the extra medical stuff that has happened and the removal of scar tissue and everything else he had done has freed up his finger and it’s given him that feeling of confidence again back into his fingers."
He added: "Ultimately given what he’s experienced and where he’s been, it’s important that he and we move at the right pace for him. There’s certainly no pressure or expectation from us."
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Bobat was speaking as England named their 14-player squad for the England Lions tour of Australia, who will play two warm-up matches against the full side to assist their Ashes preparations. Dom Sibley, Saqib Mahmood and Matt Parkinson are all included.
"There is a likelihood a player can put forward a compelling case and end up being around for the Ashes," he said. "Ultimately there’s a real opportunity for some of those players to showcase what they can do in front of the England captain."
Liam Livingstone, who has enjoyed an outstanding year for England in limited-overs cricket and has declared his ambitions to play Test cricket, and James Vince are noticeable omissions.
Warwickshire opener Rob Yates, who scored five first-class centuries last summer, Lancashire’s highly-regarded Josh Bohannon and Somerset skipper Tom Abell are included, as is Gloucestershire keeper-batsman James Bracey, who endured a torrid debut Test series against New Zealand.
Livingstone, part of England’s Twenty20 World Cup squad, could head to Australia at the conclusion of the tournament for the Big Bash League, so could, therefore, conceivably still be drafted in by England if necessary over the winter.
Liam Livingstone missed out on the Lions squad
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
"From a red-ball perspective, put simply it felt like there were other players ahead of him right now," Bobat said of Livingstone’s omission. "He’s done incredibly well in white-ball cricket, some of his red-ball numbers in the last couple of years might not have been what he’s wanted."
The England Lions squad will depart for Australia on November 4, along with all the England Test players who are not part of the T20 World Cup. England Lions will play one three-day and one four-day match against England before the Ashes begins, with the four-day match likely to be first-class to maximise the intensity of the game.
England Lions will end their tour playing a match against Australia A, before departing on December 16. But some Lions players could stay on in Australia, either as reserves or if they are added to the official touring party.
Meanwhile, the LV Insurance County Championship will return to a two-division structure from next season. The Championship used a conference format this year, but will revert to 10 teams in division one, and eight in division two for 2022, with each county placed in the division they would have been had the 2020 Championship taken place.
That means Lancashire, Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire will take their place in the top flight with Nottinghamshire, relegated in 2019, in division two.