In November, England head coach Chris Silverwood left his first tour in charge in the middle of a Test match after the death of his father-in-law. Last month, captain Joe Root missed the first Test of the summer for the birth of his second child.
Now, totemic vice-captain Ben Stokes will miss the rest of the summer to be with his family in New Zealand. Stokes’s father, Ged, remains seriously unwell after falling ill in South Africa at Christmas.
He spent 37 days in hospital in Johannesburg and was visited by his son most nights during the Tests at Centurion and the Wanderers.
Cricket is among the most personally demanding sports, with months on end away from home at the best of times. In the midst of a global pandemic, the situation is clearly tougher, with players unable to see family members during or between matches. They cannot escape the game with a meal in a quiet restaurant and their bedrooms overlook their ‘office’.
Jos Buttler, the man likely to resume the vice-captain’s role in Stokes’s absence, was also fighting a hidden battle on Saturday, having learned the night before that his father had been admitted to hospital.
Buttler Snr was well enough to be discharged on Saturday, but his son would not have known that. A
cricketer’s is a great life, but players are so often fighting invisible personal battles.
What is clear is that England’s leaders have their team’s values and work-life balance just right.
“I think it has definitely changed for the better,” said James Anderson. “As I’ve done this week, we quite often take this game very seriously. It is our job and quite a big deal for some people.
“But there is nothing more important than family. I think it is something that certainly Joe and Chris have brought in under their leadership: family comes first. And this group of players rally round each other and help if there is anything that needs help. Ben is going through that, so it is our job to try to support him the best we can and hope that things turn out okay.”
Root is not a perfect captain. He had poor moments tactically at Old Trafford and England need more runs from him — especially this week — but his players really do play for him and he empowers them. They have won their past six games under the Yorkshireman.
His quiet words of encouragement to Buttler on his way out to bat two days ago showed that he has a delicate touch with his players. Buttler said he was told to “do it your way”. That was exactly the same note Root left on the hanger of Stokes’s captain’s blazer as he prepared to stand in for the first time against West Indies.
Stokes, of course, leaves a enormous hole in the side. He is simply always involved. Even when playing as a specialist batsman this week, he popped up with two vital wickets on the third evening that helped start England’s charge for victory.
England can take heart from the fact that in the two games he has played as a batsman, he has managed just 29 runs — and they still have two wins under their belts.
Saturday was a handy time for Chris Woakes to return to his best with the bat and it suddenly looks sensible, not strange, that he bowled just five overs in Pakistan’s second innings.
Bring Zak Crawley in for Stokes and Sam Curran — who, remember, has won all eight of his home Tests — back at No8 for Anderson. That bolsters the the batting and gives spinner Dom Bess some footmarks to work with.
Then the make-up of the attack will come down to workloads; assess Jofra Archer, see how Stuart Broad (who has popped into the ICC’s top 10 all-rounders, thanks to his rich vein of slogging) is after three straight Tests and ascertain whether Mark Wood’s injury niggle is serious.
If two of them are not good to go, it is surely time for a look at Sussex’s Ollie Robinson.
It makes life easier that Stokes departs with England 1-0 up, not trailing, as they have been in their last five series.
Without him, everything will be that little less interesting. But that is fine — he is in exactly the right place.