Joe Root makes his big call but has 'no doubt' over Ben Stokes' readiness
Deserve, as Clint Eastwood said, has nothing to do with it.
While it's probably unfortunate to evoke an Eastwood character in connection with Ben Stokes at present - the above quote comes from Unforgiven, where Eastwood played the part of William Munny, but you wouldn't have to look too far to find a Dirty Harry comparison ("Would you, Punk") - it fits pretty neatly.
Did Sam Curran deserve to be dropped for Trent Bridge? No. He's averaging 42 with the bat and 24 with the ball in this Test series. It's only a couple of weeks since he was Man-of-the-Match at Edgbaston and his left-arm swing has given England some much-needed variation. He is unlucky, for sure.
But the question should not be 'who deserves it' but 'who gives England the stronger team.' And Stokes is, at this stage of his career, almost certainly the better all-round option. He's scored six Test hundreds (Curran has yet to make a first-class century) and taken four five-wicket hauls, after all. And he may be the best fielder in the side.
And while he is deemed the better player, his selection makes sense. Once the team management were sure Stokes was fit, mentally and physically, to return to the side, he had to play. Painful though it is to disappoint Curran who deserves so much better. In an era where England are rich in all-round talent - Moeen Ali hasn't played a Test this summer, remember - something had to give. Stokes has been, as Joe Root put it, "a proven performer for a long period of time" and, in that same Edgbaston Test in which Curran excelled, produced the spell of bowling which secured victory.
Stokes did look drained towards the end of the trial. Not only that, it became apparent in the witness box that he cannot stand still for long periods of time as he suffers from back pain. It is one of the reasons he is a reluctant slip fielder to the seamers. He needs to keep moving.
So, having ascertained he was fit to bat and bowl in the nets on Thursday and Friday, Root sat him down sometime on Thursday and tried to come to a conclusion over his mental preparedness.
"It was just me and him," Root said. "And I asked him where he was at. He told me he's desperate to get out there. I felt he was ready to play. I've known him since we were both really quite young and I feel very confident he will be able to go out and put in a strong performance. No, I've no doubt."
Might Stokes' selection send an unhelpful signal to potential players? Might it suggest that, while England talk a good game about culture and responsibility, they'll turn a blind eye to a certain level of indiscretion when it's convenient?
It probably can be seen that way, yes. But Stokes has been cleared of serious wrongdoing in a court of law and, as when he was recalled for the New Zealand tour, the England management are keen not to prejudice the conclusions of the Cricket Discipline Commission case that will follow. Stokes may face more censure yet. But he has missed an Ashes tour already and Root, perhaps better briefed and a bit more sophisticated in the ways of the media, was very reluctant to follow Trevor Bayliss' lead and be drawn into suggesting Stokes should make any sort of public apology.
"There are certain things that should be kept within the group and I will leave it there," Root said. "It is up to Ben [whether to offer any sort of public apology] and I am sure when it's the right time he will say what he feels he needs to say."
There were other options. Jos Buttler, for all his talent, is 22 Tests into a career that has yet to yield a century and is averaging just 8.33 in this series. At some stage that talent has to be turned into something more tangible. But the England management are confident he will come good and, only four Tests into his latest comeback, do not want to abandon the plan just yet. He might well require a display of belief from the management to build the levels of self-confidence required to unleash that ability. Still, he's probably no more talented than Mark Rampakash and we know how his Test career ended.
Adil Rashid or Ollie Pope might have been considered vulnerable, too. But, for all his inactivity in this series to date, England value the option of Rashid's spin while none of England's middle-order batsmen are ideally suited to batting at No. 4. Well, none but Root. And he's already a place too high. They don't need five seamers in the side, either, and it says much for Chris Woakes' comeback at Lord's that he hardly occurs as an option to be dropped.
England's real problems are higher up the order. Alastair Cook is averaging 11.33 this series and Keaton Jennings 20.33. And while conditions have been demanding for batsmen and Cook's career record has long since been assured, the sense remains the team management are in denial as to his decline. The monster double-century he scored on a horrifically slow pitch in Melbourne represents one of only three occasions he has reached 40 in his most recent 23 innings. He has reached 25 only six times in that period and his slip catching has become a real worry. If a county opening batsman can use the narrow of window of opportunity offered by the last few weeks of the season to make a compelling case - and you might well think Rory Burns has already done that - there may yet be more changes at the top of the order before the end of the year.
In the end, though, it made sense for Curran to make way. Every selection is brutal. Every selection brings joy and pain in equal measure. And just as James Hildreth doesn't deserve to have missed out on international cricket, Graham Onions didn't deserve the back injury that robbed him of just a little nip and Ezra Moseley didn't deserve to be born in an era when Caribbean cricket was bursting with wonderful seamers, Curran can absolutely consider himself unfortunate.
But that doesn't make this decision wrong. And Curran can console himself with the knowledge that he is, aged 20, already established within the set-up. If, as is being rumoured, England opt to rest both Stuart Broad and James Anderson from the Sri Lanka tour, Curran will be one of the beneficiaries. So, too, will Jamie Porter, who is impressing in almost every training session.
"Sam wasn't delighted," Root admitted, "but he took it extremely well and very maturely for a young guy who is desperate to play.
"The difficult part is the fact that everyone is performing so well. Sam has done an exceptional job throughout the series. It made it very difficult to leave him out; probably one of the most difficult selections I've had to make as captain. He's been fantastic when he's played and I still feel he has a big part to play throughout this series to come.
"But Ben played exceptionally well at Edgbaston. He's in a really good place to go out and play for England."