India vs England: For Ben Stokes the innovator, it all boils down to this | Cricket - Hindustan Times

India vs England: For Ben Stokes the innovator, it all boils down to this

By, Ranchi
Feb 28, 2024 06:18 AM IST

The England skipper is going to stick to Bazball but for the tactic to work, his team needs to raise the game.

Twenty-two Tests, seven undefeated series, and it all could unravel in five days. And since England don’t play to draw, there are only two ways this Test could finish and for the series to progress. In short, this is the biggest litmus test of Bazball.

England's captain Ben Stokes during a practice session (PTI)
England's captain Ben Stokes during a practice session (PTI)

Ben Stokes must have anticipated this day would come. Putting all eggs in one basket—adding Ollie Robinson’s height to James Anderson’s wealth of experience and finally choosing two of his best spinners is one way to go. But that isn’t going to solve all his problems.

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The tactics, while not always on point, have still been bold. Young spinners Tom Hartley and Shoaib Bashir have been pushed to their limits. In the field, Stokes has displayed out-of-the-box ingenuity, often preempting dismissals with unconventional placements. He himself has been lightning quick, conjuring magical run outs, running back 20 yards to complete scintillating catches. But for England to play and win the Bazball way, the key ingredient has been missing.

In Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Stokes beats the heart of England’s batting. But the returns have been far from even minimum. Stokes still has a fifty to his name. Root and Bairstow however have contributed only 179 runs in six innings so far, leaving them barely one innings to turn the table on India. Stokes however doesn’t accept that he has a problem.

“If batters have a tough time over a short period, it will come under scrutiny,” he said on Thursday. “I don’t look at it like that, I look at what Jonny has contributed for a long period of time, since I’ve been captain. He has money in the bank, he’s a quality player. He’s someone who has been very integral to what we have done.”

In a way, Stokes also holds the key to this. If Root hasn’t got the desired returns in his new-found reverse-sweeping avatar, the onus falls on Stokes to tell his best batter that he need not try that hard to fit in with the team’s new ethos. And that it won’t be awful if Root switches back to the way he used to bat before. Bairstow too could be well-served if for a change, he focuses on leaving more balls in the earlier stages. These may be in direct contravention of what England’s new brand of cricket stands for but desperate times do call for desperate measures.

As for himself, Stokes is still unsure whether he will bowl against India even though he bowled full tilt for almost 40 minutes on Wednesday. He hasn’t been required to bowl so far but with England finally going with four specialist bowlers, there might arise a need for Stokes to break a partnership, or just give one of his mates some relief. He hasn’t ruled out the possibility completely though.

“I’ve pulled up really well,” Stokes said on the BBC on Thursday. “It’s another step forward for me in terms of the ball. As keen as I am to get there, I do have to be very sensible about it.”

It’s his batting though that could elevate England to the level of competition they have failed to scale since Hyderabad. Every time England lose wickets, they do so in a heap. And even though Stokes has been solid in the first innings, it’s his second innings returns—6, 11 and 15—that leave much to be desired.

“In terms of my own batting, you always want to get more,” he said. “I’ve felt pretty good every time I’ve been in the middle. But when you think I need to get a big score you start striving too much.”

Maybe that’s where Stokes has to find that resolve that has served him so well in the Ashes. For another failure would surely mean the end of a great run.

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    Somshuvra Laha is a sports journalist with over 11 years' experience writing on cricket, football and other sports. He has covered the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup, the 2016 ICC World Twenty20, cricket tours of South Africa, West Indies and Bangladesh and the 2010 Commonwealth Games for Hindustan Times.

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