Stokes has missed England’s first three games of the World Cup because of a hip complaint and has watched from the sidelines as his team-mates slipped to heavy losses to New Zealand and Afghanistan. Those defeats – with a victory over Bangladesh sandwiched between them – have jeopardised their semi-final prospects and they will likely need five wins from their remaining six league games to be in contention for the knockout stages.
“So fingers crossed, he can tick off all the things that need to be ticked off and he comes back into that side. He’s like the spiritual leader of the group in many ways, and he certainly spoke really well after the game the other day, and spoke about that need to really assert ourselves.”
Buttler only addressed his players briefly after completing his media duties in the aftermath of Sunday’s defeat, instead handing over first to Mott and then to Stokes. Stokes does not hold an official leadership position in England’s limited-overs set-up but is a senior player and their Test captain.
Mott said that he did not doubt England’s effort or commitment, but told his players that they looked short on confidence and that they had fallen short in their “general attitude” with both bat and ball.
“The boys are trying really hard,” he said on Tuesday, “but the two things that we’re probably missing are the confidence – to puff your chest out, go out there and really take the game on – and then it’s just our general attitude, our ability to do the little things: bowl in partnerships when we’re bleeding from one end… and then with the bat, just being a little bit braver.
“We pride ourselves on putting the opposition under pressure, and on reflection, we’ve been the reactive team in those two games. We need to turn that around really quickly.”
Stokes had spoken to his team-mates in the aftermath of England’s defeat to Ireland at last year’s T20 World Cup in Australia, after which they won four consecutive games to lift the trophy. And he did the same after Mott spoke on Sunday, reinforcing the coach’s message about positivity after a series of tame dismissals.
“Stokesy came in on the back of that and just really reinforced what was a great message – particularly someone who was sitting on the bench, and had a bit of a different lens,” Mott recalled. “Like it did in the T20 World Cup, it [losing] backs you into a corner and you have to come out.
“We know when we go into that mode and we’re not as forceful and aggressive, other teams grow from that. That was one of Stokesy’s biggest points: we’re normally the team that dictates terms and gets the other team unsettled, disrupted. And for whatever reason, we haven’t been able to do that. It’s quite clear what we need to do.”
Harry Brook has batted No. 4 for England in Stokes’ absence, but was the only batter to assert himself in Sunday’s run chase, top-scoring with 66 off 61 balls. Mott did not rule out the possibility that Stokes – who will play as a specialist batter as he managed his chronic knee injury – could replace an allrounder.
Such a move would mean England risk being light on bowling options, with Joe Root likely filling in as their sixth bowler. But it would also enable them to field a batting line-up featuring Moeen Ali or Liam Livingstone at No. 7, emboldening their top order to attack. “That’s going to be a real key question,” Mott said.
“It’s still up for debate. We’ll have some really good, robust conversations over the next 24 hours; try and work out what that best balance is, not just for South Africa, but for the conditions as well. Harry batted extremely well and I think everyone knows his class as a player so it’s a good problem to have. Whatever way we go, we’ll have a strong XI.”
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98