Ben Stokes alchemy not enough if England miss big moments after India loss

England captain Ben Stokes will reflect on a missed opportunity (Picture: Getty Images)

This Test was an anomaly, not because of a home win for India, a result which also saw them clinch the series 3-1, but for another reason. It saw England move away from the boom and bust of Bazball to ply a more traditional approach, a style with some interesting outcomes if not the result they needed.

The main one is they forced India to be at their very best with both bat and ball to win, something Ben Stokes’ team hadn’t done, at least to this extent, since winning the first Test. Since then, most of England’s problems have been self-inflicted, though not so much here where a play-the-situation pragmatism held sway over Bazball zealotry as revealed by Joe Root’s fine, unbeaten 122 in the first innings.

If we are being strict, England should probably have won this latest match to level the series – their capitulation for 145 on the third day, after being 120 for four, the big mistake which did for them. Ravichandran Ashwin and Kuldeep Yadav were consummate at getting into England’s minds on a slow, cracked pitch where only the occasional ball turned, taking nine wickets between them.

England should have posted at least 200, a score which, added to the 100-plus lead they ought to have taken on first innings but didn’t (it was 46), would have given them a big enough cushion (300 plus) for their inexperienced spin attack to relax and win the match.

Instead, India required 192 which meant Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley were under pressure, which brought tension into arms and fingers. Hartley, especially, seemed unable to bowl with enough pace and revs on the ball to trouble India consistently, especially when the game was in the balance.

England spinner Shoaib Bashir has shown plenty of promise

England spinner Shoaib Bashir has shown plenty of promise (Picture: AP)

Every pitch is different and spinners, in particular, need to make small adjustments in order to maximise their effectiveness.

Hartley and Bashir’s inexperience (before Ranchi the latter had bowled just four overs in the fourth innings of a first-class match) mean such things are not yet second nature though Bashir, who was on a hat-trick after lunch on the final day, took an impressive eight wickets in the match.

Tall, with a repeatable action, the off-spinner was impressively calm under pressure. If he can get more than his long fingers into his bowling action, he has the potential to become a formidable performer. There is perhaps an aspect of Bazball which needs to be applauded come what may, and that is the alchemy of captain Stokes in turning novices into competitive Test-match bowlers with what has amounted to mere hours of bowling time behind them, at least at first-class level.

Stokes has captained with great verve and sympathy this series and his players clearly revere him as their leader. Just getting his team up for this match after their heavy defeat in the third Test deserves plaudits. I wonder, though, why he didn’t go a bit more Bazball with his field settings in India’s second innings by having more close catchers round the bat and fewer protecting the leg-side boundary.

He didn’t have many runs to play with but he seemed overly worried by the effect boundaries might have in knocking his spinners’ confidence. Fours and sixes were therefore cut to the bone.

Shubman Gill (right) and Dhruv Jurel shepherded India to victory

Shubman Gill (right) and Dhruv Jurel shepherded India to victory (Picture: Getty Images)

Yet, for Hartley and Bashir to bowl India out without the pressure of time, Stokes needed to make the batsmen complicit in their own downfall, something neither Shubman Gill nor Dhruv Jurel looked like doing with the field set back. It was their 72-run partnership for the sixth wicket that sealed the win for India.

Let’s be clear here. None of England’s spinners, including the injured Jack Leach, are in Ashwin’s class. Yet with Stokes’ shrewd marshalling they have managed to be competitive, just rarely in the really big moments.

The problem now is how do all of them (including Rehan Ahmed who returned home for family reasons) carry on improving when only one of them is likely to play Tests in England and other countries not based in Asia? None of them bowl much in red-ball county cricket or in Bashir’s case even get picked very often in the first team, Leach being Somerset’s chief spinner. That will be the big challenge now.

A bit like last year’s Ashes series, people will look back and wonder what might have been for England had they played with a bit more care and attention. Being ruthless is what wins you matches and when Australia began their ascent to becoming the world’s greatest Test team 25-30 years ago, captain Mark Taylor attributed much of their success to identifying the big moments and winning them.

Here, England have mostly failed to do that but then it hasn’t always been clear, from the often reckless way they played, that they spotted when those big moments were.

Jonny Bairstow has been short of runs for England

Jonny Bairstow has been short of runs for England (Picture: Getty Images)

A dead rubber now awaits in Dharamshala amid the snow-capped foothills of the Himalayas.

England should make changes with Gus Atkinson likely to play instead of James Anderson and possibly Dan Lawrence getting a chance, though it’s not obvious which batsman he might replace given it will be Jonny Bairstow’s 100th Test, and he is the only one without a fifty.

Whoever plays England are readying themselves, after another short break this time within India, by flying in their long-sleeve sweaters. Pre-season starts here.


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