India v England: ‘Ben Stokes’ team can win if they find a some ruthlessness’

Ben Stokes bats against India
Ben Stokes is averaging 34 in the India series – only Ollie Pope (61) and Zak Crawley (50) are averaging more

And breathe.

Mercifully for the players, and disappointingly for the rest of us, England’s tour of India pauses for a break before the third Test in Rajkot.

If you have been getting up at 4am for the past two weeks, use the time to sleep and catch up on those day-to-day tasks that go out of the window when the cricket is this good. Maybe check to see if you still have a job.

Only two Tests into the five, there have been enough stories to fill an entire Adele album.

Shoaib Bashir’s visa. Ollie Pope’s epic. Tom Hartley going from garden centre to centre of attention. Jasprit Bumrah and James Anderson competing to be the most freakishly skilful fast bowler. Yashasvi Jaiswal. Ben Stokes’ catching and Ben Foakes’ wicketkeeping. Ollie Robinson’s hair.

A scoreline of 1-1 feels right, even if both sides will think they had chances to be 2-0 up. India have probably won more sessions, but England have landed plenty of blows of their own.

It is deliciously poised, with the prospect of more twists and turns of the Tuk Tuk on the journey to the foothills of the Himalayas for the fifth Test in Dharamsala at the beginning of next month.

After the vast city of Hyderabad and the sea breeze of Visakhapatnam, England will be taken to colourful Rajkot and the waterfalls of Ranchi before they breathe in the mountain air.

They will spend the break in Abu Dhabi with their families. If their thoughts do turn to cricket, uppermost in England minds should be the problem of Bumrah, whose staccato action and educated fingers could probably swing a tangerine around corners.

The frissons of excitement generated every time Bumrah begins a new spell are approaching (but not quite at) the tingles felt every time Mitchell Johnson took the ball in the 2013-14 Ashes. The obliteration of Pope’s middle and leg stumps on the second afternoon in Visakhapatnam was so violent, it should have come with an 18 rating.

In a series where batting and spin bowling promised to be the decisive factors, Bumrah is emerging as a potential difference between the two sides.

England have their own genius in the shape of Anderson, looking back to his best after months of getting into prime physical shape. All of a sudden, it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to suggest that Anderson, 42 this summer, could even make another tour of Australia in late 2025. In the words of the man himself, he feels “amazing”.

Remarkably, England’s trio of young spinners are matching India’s through a hefty dollop of derring-do and some expert marshalling by Stokes. Bashir was England’s best in the first innings in Visakhapatnam. Rehan Ahmed has more wickets than Axar Patel, Hartley more than Ravichandran Ashwin.

When Jack Leach is fit, England have a ticklish selection decision, unless they make good on Brendon McCullum’s threat to play all four at the same time.

England have proven they can hang with India in these conditions, rising to the biggest challenge in cricket and arguably one of the biggest in all sport.

If they are to become the first visiting team to claim a Test series win here since 2012, then they will need to find some ruthlessness with the bat.

Some 25 England batters have reached 20 in this series, but only four have passed 50 – Pope and Stokes in the first Test, Zak Crawley twice in the second.

Admittedly, ruthlessness does not go hand-in-hand with the swash and buckle that makes England thrilling to watch. The method England employ has its flaws, which is one of the things that makes them so compelling.

Perhaps the missing ingredient is a touch of Joe Root, whose highest score so far in the series is 29.

Root, hampered by a finger injury, played a strange knock in the second innings in Visakhapatnam, hitting two fours and a six in his first nine balls, then an awful swipe to be dismissed from his 10th.

Root knows his way around India – no batter in the history of Test cricket has more runs against this opposition – but he also has his problems against Bumrah. Only Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood have dismissed him more times in Tests.

At his best, Root is the drummer in the band of Bazball, keeping the beat while the rest play guitar solos all around him. England need him to rediscover his rhythm.

It is to India’s credit that they bounced back from being ambushed in Hyderabad to level the series in Visakhapatnam, especially with five first-choice players missing. Young batters Jaiswal and Shubman Gill looked every inch the backbone of India’s run-scoring for years to come.

But it also appears that India are incredibly wary of England, spooked by what happened in Hyderabad and at Edgbaston in 2022, when Stokes’ men chased down 378 without breaking sweat.

Crawley and Anderson alluded to it in Visakhapatnam, where India came close to freezing on the third afternoon. Even in the early stages of England’s massive chase of 399, fielders were nearer to the Bay of Bengal than they were to a catching positions.

Both England’s style and their rhetoric does something to opponents. Australia left the UK last summer with their baggy greens spinning, and India are now twisting the handle of the jack-in-the-box, terrified of when it will burst open. They have missed the energy, fearlessness and fight of Virat Kohli.

England have been here before. Three years ago they won the first Test, only to be blown away in the remaining three. They have shown enough so far this time around to suggest a repeat is not on the cards.

How far they can push the hosts is the question to be answered in the remaining three Tests. They have already achieved more than many thought they might. They might yet pull off something special.

Use the break wisely. That 4am alarm will come around before you know it.

Source: BBC News

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