India v England: ‘Ben Stokes’ side must not become a blunt instrument’

Ben Duckett
Ben Duckett made 153, but was part of England’s collapse of 8-95 on the third day of the third Test in Rajkot

This is a tough one to tackle.

Making sense of the highs and lows of this England team is harder than putting spilled milk back into the bottle. The highs have become regular and often mountainous. They make the lows all the more unfathomable.

And regardless of the positive spin England might try to put on, this was a low.

England had the third Test and possibly the series against India at their mercy. The tourists had danced to 207-2 in response to 445 and had a scorching Saturday in which to bat themselves into the ascendency.

Ravichandran Ashwin’s sad withdrawal left India without a key man, yet somehow England frittered away their golden opportunity in a blur of sloppy shots and brain fades.

Eight wickets for 95 runs, including 5-29 after lunch. All out for 319, a deficit of 126 that stretched to 322 by the close thanks to Yashasvi Jaiswal’s sparkling century. Jaiswal hit so many boundaries, he put his back out and had to retire hurt.

England were in a very similar position in the second Ashes Test at Lord’s, when they pressed the self-destruct button just as Nathan Lyon was hobbling out of the series. Sometimes England not only fail to read the room, they burn it to the ground.

More broadly, this Test has been a greatest hits of poor England performances from a bygone era. Dropped catches, failing to finish off the lower-order, a batting collapse. Facing a monster fourth-innings chase will be last on the bingo sheet, fully testing England’s assertion that they can hunt down any target.

Clearly any disappointment with this performance has to be tempered by the wonderful journey England have taken us on over the past two years.

Just a few weeks ago, they were daring to pull off the first-Test heist in Hyderabad, one of the finest overseas wins in their history. While that win does not make England a great side, the roasting in Rajkot does not make them a poor one.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. Following England is like caring for a toddler. It can be joyous and frustrating, often both at the same time. They demand eyeballs at every possible second, just in case they do something breathtaking or life-threatening.

And just as a parent watches a child grow up, perhaps the real fascination in this England team comes from seeing them mature – hopefully.

England have proven they are on to something. They have been transformed from a team that did not know how to win to one that has thrilled, innovated and inspired.

Jasprit Bumrah celebrates wicket of Joe Root
Jasprit Bumrah has dismissed Joe Root nine times in Test cricket

But for all of the spectacular things England have achieved, the boundaries they have pushed and norms they have challenged, a few universal truths remain from 147 years of Test cricket: the game is a rich tapestry, with no one-size-fits-all approach. The very best teams adapt from match to match, country to country, situation to situation, often at a moment’s notice.

When it comes to the Saturday shambles, attention will fall on Joe Root, who is fighting a battle on this tour.

The former captain has not had a good third Test. His drop of Rohit Sharma on the first morning proved crucial, he was tetchy about India running on the pitch and Spidercam on day two, then his shot sparked England’s collapse.

Root’s reverse-scoop to the pace bowlers (the Roop?) is almost the new England in microcosm: spectacular when it comes off, horrific when it doesn’t.

Which leads to the question of whether we can have one without the other? If we want to be enthralled when Root reverse-scoops Pat Cummins, do we have to accept when it goes wrong? If we want the England that battered India on the second evening, do we have to accept the England that fell apart on the third day?

Clearly there is a balance to be struck, a balance missing on Saturday. They should be wary of becoming a blunt instrument and know there is a glorious nuance to Test cricket.

And England have shown they can learn, even if they won’t admit it.

They were ill-prepared for the Ashes, as undercooked as a team that spent the week before the first Test playing golf while Australia were beating India to win the world title. Whether it was a decision taken collectively or individually, England turned up in India as fit as bunch of Olympic athletes.

Stokes used his early days as captain to make a statement, running at the bowlers like an extra from Highlander. Since then his strike-rate has gradually decreased, as he has returned to his normal rhythm of batting.

England have been nimble too, often showing signs of being skilled alchemists. Promoting Ollie Pope to number three, recalling Ben Duckett, breathing life into the back end of Stuart Broad’s career, getting a tune out of inexperienced spinners like Will Jacks, Rehan Ahmed and Tom Hartley.

Now the final ingredient required is ruthlessness. It was lacking in the second Test against India in Visakhapatnam and its absence looks set to cost England once more in Rajkot.

They might have made a habit of comebacks and run-chases, but they are so much harder in this part of the world because of the rapidly deteriorating pitches.

For all Stokes talks about trying to take the result out of England’s thinking, he is a born winner. The same goes for Brendon McCullum.

These are legends of the game that have assured their legacies regardless of what happens to this England side. What about the likes of Duckett, Pope, Zak Crawley, Ben Foakes and Jack Leach? They should want to make their mark in history as winners, not just entertainers.

The Dutch played Total Football, but did not win the World Cup. Jimmy White was the darling of the Crucible without ever winning the world title. David Nalbandian had a backhand to die for, but never took a Grand Slam.

England do not want to fall into the same trap. They were involved in an all-time classic in a one-run defeat by New Zealand in Wellington, but that loss meant they did not win the series. They might well have won the Ashes had it not rained in Manchester, but it did, so they didn’t.

Now they are in severe danger of missing a rare chance to beat an India team in transition and without a number of big names. Instead of pulling off one of the great achievements in Test cricket, they are at risk of wondering what might have been.

If you’re not sure how to feel, that’s fine. Being a fully signed up worshiper of the Church of Bazball does not stop us from wanting more from England. You can love your other half, but have every right to wonder why they can’t put the lid back on the milk.

Sometimes England need to keep the lid on. Once the milk is spilt, it’s almost impossible to get back into the bottle.

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