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. Later in the day it transpired that Chris Woakes had become another victim of the flu epidemic that has plagued the tour party.
Joe Root could not add any more detail to the ECB’s press release about Stokes’s father, Jed, which referred to “a serious illness”. The captain 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 – his mother, brother and wife are also in Johannesburg. “That comes first‚” said Root, and that is what the tour party have been doing.
Root then revealed that Woakes was experiencing what appears to be the initial stages of the flu bug that has already afflicted four of the squad: Jofra Archer, Jack Leach, Stuart Broad and, more mildly, Joe Denly.
Woakes did not train on Christmas Eve and nor did Stokes, who was at his father’s bedside, but the three bowlers who are returning from illness, did.
Root did his best to stay sanguine about the situation. “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. The most important thing is that we give Ben and his family all the support we can”
Despite South Africa’s recent record – five Test defeats in succession – and the recent issues about the running of their game Root expects tough opposition on Boxing Day. “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 will delay the announcement of their team until the morning of the match. The vast majority of the 19 cricketers here have a chance of playing.
Among the options is the possibility of going into the Test without a specialist spinner for the second game in a row – partly because Jack Leach still has to prove his fitness.
Moreover, if Stokes does not play - a decision he would take with the utmost reluctance – there is the chance that Jonny Bairstow might fill the number five slot.