Ind vs Eng – Ben Stokes unfazed by baseball setback, England set to bounce back

Robinson backs good in first outing of series on 'interesting' surface at Ranchi

Vidhushan Ehandaraja

Will Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes continue to support Jonny Bairstow? Good pictures

„It was interesting, wasn't it? I don't know, I can't say much.” This is perhaps the most diplomatic response Ben Stokes has ever given in India.

Coming into this tour, England made a conscious effort not to whine about the pitches. Like any domestic team, adjusting a surface on their own terms is India's forte. Complaining about them does little but makes you look like a sore loser and, worse, creates paranoia within your own teams. Internal messaging is simple: deal with it. Manufactured in Abu Dhabi on raked, sanded pads, this was done with this in mind.

And they mostly stick to it – TRS gripes aside, of course. Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam and Rajkot pitches were excellent throughout, evolving to provide a varied and ultimately rewarding quality. Also, India have been the better team so far with a score of 2-1.

By the way, things are set to take a turn in Ranchi. The tourists were greeted with the odd 22-yarder at the JSCA International Stadium. Two days before Friday's start, it was already cracked, with plates that some players expected to change under pressure.

„I don't know, I've never seen anything like this before so I have no idea,” Stokes said when asked how it would play out. „I don't know what's going to happen.

„If you looked down one side of the opposite ends, it looked different than what I was used to seeing, especially in India, where it looked green and grassy, ​​but if you went outside, it looked different. Very dark and crumbly and had some cracks in it.”

When it was announced that Jasprit Bumrah would be rested for the fourth Test, England thought the conditions would be more unusual for the series. Bumrah's 17 wickets at 13.64 have come in a variety of situations and balls, and India won't mind if their spinners have more to offer in his absence. Especially leading 2-1.

England must grin and bear it. As vice-captain Ollie Pope observed: „If it spins off a ball, I think it's an even pitch”.

Ranchi ground staff take wickets ahead of the fourth Test Good pictures

As such, Stokes is considering a return to the spin-heavy attack of the first two Tests, although he will wait for a final look on Thursday before deciding whether to bring in off-spinner Shoaib Bashir for James Anderson. Another option, if England look forward to a short match dominated by the need for quick scores, particularly in the turning stages, is to have Don Lawrence step in for Anderson to strengthen the batting. Although he is yet to play a Test under Stokes, the England management has long appreciated his positive attitude, while his own unique offspin is known to extract a sharp turn.

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It is now certain that Ollie Robinson will replace Mark Wood, who spent a lot of energy during the defeat in the third Test and needed a rest.

It was an intriguing tour for Robinson. He's almost completely in the shadows, having spent his last series as one of the main protagonists. His last match was the third Ashes Test at Headingley, where he was restricted to just 11.2 overs in the first innings, before a back injury ruled him out of the rest of the series. He had been Australia's main antagonist until then, with just nine wickets at an average of 28.40, while making a moderate impact, doing a lot worse off the field.

The six months between the last of those 19 Test caps and the build-up to this tour were spent wisely. He knocked about 20 seconds off his 2km time on a fitness drive that made him leaner and fit for the rigors of the energy-sapping work India asks of seamers.

A player publicly lambasted by former bowling coach John Lewis for his lack of fitness during the 2021/22 Ashes series, he was omitted by Stokes for the first series against New Zealand in the summer of 2022 and asked by his captain to shape up, then failed to play. A full piece last summer, it was a pivotal moment for Robinson. An uneventful couple of years gives a talented batsman the chance to make an impact in a top-class series with 76 at 22.21. This must-win Test will be India's first Test at the age of 30.

Robinson didn't go through the motions while on the periphery of the series. His partner, Mia Baker, is away for the duration of the tour, and the pair recorded a few episodes of the podcast „Chatting Balls” and played a few rounds of golf in their downtime.

More importantly, Robinson has maintained a high level during the nets, displaying skills that worked well on similar pitches that were not seam-friendly in Pakistan last winter. This has not gone unnoticed.

„I think he's worked incredibly hard while he's been out here,” Stokes said. “It's difficult for someone like Ollie who has played such a big part in the game over the last couple of years where he hasn't been in a game and the things he's done away from the game have been really good.

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„I told him today that he is a great example of doing the right thing and waiting for your turn. It will be difficult and disappointing not to play in the first three Tests. But don't let disappointment get in the way of the way he has performed and the way his fitness has taken things and a potential opportunity to come into this series.

„He's got incredible skills to be a successful bowler anywhere in the world. What we've seen in England is he's very talented, but we've seen more of that in Pakistan. It's similar but different here, but the skill he has, he can find any movement and his release point is always dangerous. will be

„The talent is always there. But from that chat [in 2022] He worked on everything I thought would get the best out of him, but also the team. Ollie Robinson throwing three spells and backing it up the next day would do any team the world of good.

Stokes will not be swayed by definitive reports on the selection until he sees the pitch for the last time on Thursday afternoon. This includes keeping quiet about his participation as an all-rounder.

Jonny Bairstow bowled 35 minutes during training on Wednesday – his first at bat since undergoing surgery on his left knee in November. Breaking the „pinky promise” he made with touring physio Ben Davies not to bowl in India had to be covered up with a beer. Before that, Stokes wants to see how he fares after his long spell of bowling through this rehab period.

England team huddled with MS Dhoni Pavilion in the background Good pictures

„My knee felt absolutely fine bowling today,” he said. „It was great to get over that 20-minute barrier and that's what I'm working on at the moment. It might be a bit tough but we'll wait and see.”

Collectively, the focus has been on an emotional recovery from the 434 at Rajkot in the past few days. The worst losing streak of the baseball era — and just six wins against 14 in 21 Tests — led to a significant backlash against the new-ish movement. Was Stokes surprised by the reaction?

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„No, it's the game, innit,” he shrugged. „You get accolades when it goes well and a little bit when it doesn't. That's part of it. I've been around long enough to know that, but we're breaking through.”

His immediate reaction to the defeat was to huddle the players together in the away dressing room, warning them of criticism from outside their circle of trust and the need to get over the defeat as soon as possible. Nevertheless, he appreciates that individuals have their own reflections on what he sees as wrong as a good thing.

„I'm sure that myself as a person and every player in the dressing room would have reflected in that game in one way or another. But in terms of the result, no.

„As long as everybody reflects on a game, whether you play well or not, it gives you an opportunity to do something better in the next game, I think that's the best way to look at it instead. Win, lose, whatever. That's how I look at it.

„You can have a good game and lose, and a bad game and win, so the most important thing is to reflect on your performance as an individual, rather than thinking about the result. A lot of things go into a Test match. Focusing only on the end of the game is not a good reflection.”

One thing this team has shown is the ability to turn the tide. Two summers ago, South Africa followed an innings defeat at Lord's with two dominant victories. Similarly, last summer's 2-0 loss to Australia was overturned in spectacular fashion to square the Ashes with the much-troubled protocol. Stokes will keep it a „pretty level vibe” that will keep the series alive or send England to a third straight winless streak as he leads the way.

„It's something we're good at, taking each game as it comes,” he said. “That's what we've been doing since I started as captain, we'll go out there and try to play to the best of our ability.

„You have good days and bad days, good games and bad games. Going out and sticking to the way we know allows us to play our best cricket. That's what we'll continue to focus on. That's what we'll do. The game, the next game and the other games as well.”

Vidhushan Ehandaraja is Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo

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