Bazball part one is ending and changes are needed to start new era

Ben Stokes hits out in the nets
Ben Stokes says his side are not experiencing any end-of-tour complacency and have much to play for in Thursday's dead rubber - REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

England will meet the Dalai Lama on Wednesday to be blessed before a fifth Test with plenty riding on it for the team and individuals.

This match can be seen as the closing chapter of Bazball part one. It is a natural breaking point at the culmination of consecutive series against Test championship finalists. As things stand, England are 5-3 down to Australia and India but with a little more nous could easily be 5-3 up.

Throughout, England have competed on a level footing playing a style of cricket identifiable as their own, achievements that were beyond expectations when Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum picked up the mess of the previous regime almost two years ago.

Stokes and McCullum regularly emphasise staying in the moment but planning for the next Ashes tour starts after this series. Major surgery is not required, just an injection here and there to bolster those parts that are working well. The seam attack needs freshening, the Foakes-Bairstow debate settling and one top six player makes way for Harry Brook. The last two issues are possibly interlinked.

Jonny Bairstow’s challenge will be to keep his emotions in check in his 100th Test and if he were to score a century (two others managed the feat for England – Colin Cowdrey, Alec Stewart and Joe Root) it would protect his place. Averaging 30 over his last 10 Tests, he needs runs. Ben Foakes has not made a 50 in eight innings and his limitations batting with the tail have been exposed while his keeping has been world-class.

Dalai Lama at the cricket ground in 2011
The Dalai Lama's residence is on the outskirts of Dharamsala at McLeod Ganj - AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia

Ollie Robinson’s vapid bowling in Ranchi ran contrary to McCullum’s team-first philosophy and even though he received nothing but strong backing from Stokes publicly – he will never criticise players in the media – England cannot trust him to make it through a Test match in one piece and that has to be factored into the thinking for the next Ashes. Dropping him for this Test would send a message. Mark Wood for Robinson with Stokes bowling for the first time since June was the plan after training on Tuesday.

Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley will be vying for one spot this summer, along with Jack Leach. Bashir is the better bowler, Hartley the more all-round package, so they too can tip the balance in their long-term favour this week. James Anderson is still going, and bowled better in India than at any stage last summer. He is two away from 700 wickets, has no plans to retire and Stokes wants him around but chances have to be given to younger players too. Not picking Gus Atkinson would seem a missed opportunity.

The snow-capped Himalayas provide a unique backdrop that could easily take a player’s mind off the game, but the last thing this team needs after squandering a winning position in Ranchi to lose the series is a meltdown and 4-1 result. The last time England played a dead rubber in a lost series they totally capitulated to Australia in Hobart. A big defeat would really put a downer on the tour and question their progress. But if they were to win this week, a 3-2 result would probably have exceeded most people’s expectations. India have not lost two Tests in a home series since they were beaten by England in 2012. The frustration this time is England had chances for this week to have a very different feel.

India net practice
India practise beneath the snow-capped Himalayas - SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images

“The message in the huddle this morning was when you get to the end of a long tour you start thinking about the end of the game,” said Stokes. “I don’t think that anyone is thinking like that. Because we’ve lost the series, it doesn’t mean that this game is different to last week or the week before.”

Dharamsala feels like Durham in May, a chill with rain in the air is forecast but the pitch is Indian. It looks good for batting, bare in places, but is unlikely to bake under the sun and crack up. Small boundaries and a lush, newly relaid outfield after the problems at the World Cup could make it a fast scoring game which normally suits England but it is rare for faltering batsmen to turn it around on India tours.

Zak Crawley is the only England player averaging over 40 but with a blank in the centuries column. Ben Duckett and Ollie Pope have played the best innings of their careers but little else. Root has been flat, despite his hundred in the last Test, while Bairstow and Stokes have started well enough but not stayed in. A misfiring middle order is why England are 3-1 down.

“It can be a very tough place to be a middle-order batter. Being in the middle order out here tends to be when the wicket is starting to deteriorate. But that responsibility falls on to us as players and when we look back on it, could there have been something different that we could have done, or did we work as hard in training?” said Stokes. “When you look back and tick all the boxes and say, no, we’ve done everything we possibly could within our powers to go out there and try and be successful, it just didn’t work, the opposition were better than us. And that’s been the case. When it’s skill v skill, in the moments that matter in the game, India have been the better team when those big moments in the Test matches have really mattered.”

Ravichandran Ashwin plays his 100th Test too and showed no emotion or interest in the milestone when asked on Tuesday, in sharp contrast to Bairstow who is desperate to mark it in style. Doing so would mean much for him and could provide the spark England have missed.

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