England all-rounder Ben Stokes on Sunday withdrew himself from the England squad and will hence miss the rest of the Pakistan Test series for family reasons. And for England, his absence is likely to add to the selection headache of the team management in the next two matches of the three-game contest against Azhar Ali's men.
Stokes, like the previous summer, has been a central figure in England's winning form at home. In the Test series against West Indies last month, he was the highest run-scorer with a tally of 363 runs at 90.75 which included a match-winning 176 in the second Test, besides taking nine wickets at 16.33 in the contest. Stokes's impressive all-round haul saw him pip Windies skipper Jason Holder to take the top spot in the ICC Test rankings. He even led England, for the very first time in his career, in the absence of Joe Root in the first Test.
It will hence be quite a task for the team management to fill in his gaps although, in his last two appearances, he played solely as a batsman. In the third Test against West Indies, England had to field a five-man attack with Stokes at No.4 as the all-rounder had incurred a stiff quad while bowling in the second Test in Manchester.
England followed a similar strategy in the Pakistan Test series opener at the Old Trafford where Stokes scored 0 and 9, although he did bowl a few overs on day 3 finishing on 2 for 11, once showing his all-round impact.
With Stokes featuring only as a batsman in the last two Tests, England had to drop Zak Crawley for the batting lineup. Hence, the youngster, who averages just 26.10 after six Tests and has a first-class average of a tad over 30, is the most likely candidate to fill in the gaps.
England can bring back Crawley which will eventually shift captain Root to No.4, but nevertheless, Stokes's absence will decrease the batting depth of the lineup. The Headingley hero has been the soul of England batting since last summer, leaving the lineup with only two veterans to fall back on, Root being the other, in case of a top-order collapse. While Ollie Pope in his last two innings has provided reasonable assistance to England - 91 against West Indies in third Test and 62 in the first innings against Pakistan - the hosts would not like to take any risk in setting up the plan to wrap up the Test series against Pakistan in Southampton next week.
England could reduce their bowling attack to four men and increase their batting depth by adding one between James Bracey, Dan Lawrence, and Ben Foakes with the latter's addition looking plausible under this strategy.
Another option that England have is using a like-for-like replacement, in a literal sense, by using Sam Curran to increase batting depth which implies that one between James Anderson and Jofra Archer might miss out on the second Test given the impact Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes have made since they were dropped from the Windies opener.
Meanwhile, England have called back Ollie Robinson, presumably because of Stokes's departure, and might be handed a debut. In that scenario, both Archer and Anderson along with Dom Bess might be rested and the Sussex pacer will join Curran, Woakes and Broad into the attack. England would also want to rest Stuart Broad and get him match ready for the final tie and hence fall back on Mark Wood, giving him another opportunity on home soil.
Ultimately, England will be only looking to aptly balance the side in Stokes's absence in a bid to start on an advantageous note against Pakistan on August 13 in Southampton.