“Stokes has withdrawn from England’s Test squad ahead of the Test series against India starting next week to prioritise his mental wellbeing and to rest his left index finger, which has not fully healed since his return to competitive cricket earlier this month.”
The 30-year-old Stokes rushed back to lead England in a one-day international series at home to Pakistan after all those originally selected were ruled out by a coronavirus outbreak within the hosts’ camp.
Stokes’s decision comes just days after American superstar gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of two events at the Tokyo Olympics to also protect her mental health.
Our primary focus has always been and will continue to be the mental health and welfare of all of our people. The demands on our athletes to prepare and play elite sport are relentless in a typical environment, but the ongoing pandemic has acutely compounded this
The 24-year-old’s struggles followed those of Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, another face of the Games who lost in the third round on her return from a mental health break.
Osaka withdrew from the French Open after refusing to take part in press conferences, claiming they are akin to “kicking people when they are down”.
She also skipped Wimbledon before returning in Tokyo where she lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony.
Stokes’ withdrawal, as has previously been the case in the vice-captain’s absence from the Test team, will leave England with a major headache over how to best balance their side without his dynamic batting and lively pace bowling as Joe Root’s men look to avenge a series loss in India earlier this year.
More than raw figures, however, it is his ability to balance the side and above all, turn a game with either bat or ball that makes Stokes such a valuable player
Nevertheless, the ECB insisted they fully supported Stokes’ decision, with their managing director of men’s cricket, Ashley Giles, saying: “Ben has shown tremendous courage to open up about his feelings and wellbeing.
“Our primary focus has always been and will continue to be the mental health and welfare of all of our people. The demands on our athletes to prepare and play elite sport are relentless in a typical environment, but the ongoing pandemic has acutely compounded this.”
We’ve had a host of elite athletes who’ve spoken about mental wellbeing and the effects of Covid and the pressure around it, and of course pressure in the limelight, that have led to them making some very tough decisions
The former England left-arm spinner added: “Spending significant amounts of time away from family, with minimal freedoms, is extremely challenging. The cumulative effect of operating almost continuously in these environments over the last 16 months has had a major impact on everyone’s wellbeing.
“Ben will be given as long as he needs and we look forward to seeing him playing cricket for England in the future.”
Stokes’s break was announced just hours after the ECB said player welfare was “paramount” ahead of the upcoming Ashes tour of Australia.
There are concerns some England players may not make the trip unless there is a relaxation of the coronavirus restrictions currently in force in Australia.
In particular, all-format players such as Stokes could be separated from their families for up to four months due to the five-Test Ashes series starting just weeks after the November finish of the Twenty20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka great Kumar Sangakkara said players could “only deal with so much” after it was announced Ben Stokes was taking an indefinite break from all forms of cricket.
Sangakkara told Sky Sports: “It must be a very, very tough time for Ben and his family. It won’t be a decision made easily but (it) brings into focus the level elite players play at -- your coping mechanism can only deal with so much.
“A lot of time away from home, in bubbles, restrictions in terms of freedom of movement, then the added pressures of performing at such a high level in the public eye.
He added: “We’ve had a host of elite athletes who’ve spoken about mental wellbeing and the effects of Covid and the pressure around it, and of course pressure in the limelight, that have led to them making some very tough decisions.”
Stokes, who in normal circumstances would be vice-captain to Test skipper Joe Root, is a key figure for England.
In 71 Tests, he has scored 4,631 runs at 37.04 as a dynamic left-handed batsman, including 10 hundreds, and taken 163 wickets at 31.38.
More than raw figures, however, it is his ability to balance the side and above all, turn a game with either bat or ball that makes Stokes such a valuable player.
His stunning unbeaten hundred that saw England to a remarkable one-wicket win in a 2019 Ashes Test at Headingley was one of several match-winning contributions.
As as well as playing under the shadow of Covid-19, the past year has also seen Stokes coping with the death of his father Ged, a former New Zealand rugby league international, from brain cancer.
“I hope he’s OK -- he’s a fabulous cricketer, one of the best in the world at the moment,” said former England batsman Kevin Pietersen.
“He obviously lost his dad, there are a lot of things that have happened to Ben Stokes in the last couple of years.”