Ben Stokes will return to cricket after a four-and-a-half month break in the first Test of the 2021-22 Ashes, in a major boost to England's hopes of winning in Australia for the first time in 11 years.
Stokes has not played any competitive cricket since July 26, when he played through injury for Northern Superchargers in the Hundred. He missed England's series against India, pulling out of the squad days before the first Test citing a need to focus on his mental wellbeing, and was not considered for selection for the T20 World Cup.
But after undergoing further surgery on his left index finger - which he broke during the IPL in April and did not fully recover after he first went under the knife - he has returned to low-level training in recent weeks which will ramp up ahead of England's departure to Australia on November 4.
"I had a break to prioritise my mental wellbeing and I got my finger sorted," Stokes said. "I am looking forward to seeing my mates and being on the field with them. I'm ready for Australia."
Writing in his newspaper column, Stokes revealed that he had been "in a real dark place" after struggling with injury and the demands of bubble life. But the removal of scar tissue from his finger enabled a swift return to training and encouraged him to make himself available for Australia.
"I feel much better about everything from my finger to my mental well-being," he said in the Mirror. "I know I can focus once again on playing my best cricket Down Under this winter.
"I probably didn't realise just how much of an issue the finger was causing me until I got it sorted the second time around. But I had also been struggling with bubble life and events off the field. I don't want anyone to feel the way I did, because I wasn't in a good place and I'm not afraid to admit it.
"I was in a real dark place and having some difficult thoughts. I was always one of those people who wouldn't talk about how they are feeling and just keep it internal and crack on. I now realise talking is such a powerful thing and it has completely changed me. Talking to my wife, talking to close friends like Rooty, it has really helped as too the professionals I have worked with."
Stokes last played for England in the ODI series against Pakistan in July, when he returned to captain the team at short notice after Eoin Morgan and the rest of the squad were forced into isolation by a number of Covid-19 positives. He batted twice and bowled a handful of overs, as England won the series 3-0, but only played twice in the Hundred thereafter before stepping away from the game indefinitely.
England announced their Ashes squad earlier this month, with Stokes absent and Chris Silverwood, the head coach, stressing that no timeframe would be put on a comeback. Stokes posted a picture of him gripping a bat handle on social media a day later, followed by video of his first hit in the nets since surgery. Last week he tweeted footage of himself bowling.
Ashley Giles, England's managing director of men's cricket, said: "Following a very successful operation on his finger and several conversations over the last few weeks between Ben and I, our medical staff and his management team, Ben called me to say he was ready to return to cricket and was excited about the prospect of playing a significant role in the Ashes series.
"Time and time again, Ben has demonstrated how important he is to the England team and having him available for the Ashes series is excellent news for all of us and, in particular, Chris [Silverwood], Joe [Root] and the rest of the players. Having not played for some time, we will move forward cautiously over the next few weeks to ensure he is fully prepared across all facets of his game.
"Ahead of a very busy period of cricket, we continue to remain mindful of the stresses on all our personnel, and our primary focus continues to be the wellbeing of all of our players and support staff."
England's Ashes planning had already taken a significant hit with the loss of two of their fastest bowlers - Jofra Archer and Olly Stone - to injury. Stokes' return will strengthen the team in all departments, not least a callow batting group of whom only three have Test experience in Australia.
Stokes made his Test debut in Australia eight years ago, scoring a century at Perth in his second appearance, but missed the 2017-18 Ashes after his involvement in a fracas outside a Bristol nightclub.