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Ben Stokes: England are no pushovers despite defeat in India

Ben Stokes sports a beanie in chilly Himachal Pradesh
Ben Stokes has found 'a belting wicket' in Dharamsala and temperatures familiar to early spring in Christchurch or Chester-le-Street - Philip Brown/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Ben Stokes has called on his England team to sign off their tour of India with a win having made “massive progress” and not being “pushovers” despite losing the series with a game to spare.

England won the opener in Hyderabad but have lost the three Tests since and India secured the series before the teams arrived in the stunning Himalayan town of Dharamsala.

Stokes’s side will finalise their team for the fifth Test after looking at the pitch on Wednesday, but were expected to make one change, with Mark Wood returning for Ollie Robinson, who went wicketless on his only appearance of the series, in Ranchi.

Skipper Stokes said heavy rainfall at the weekend meant England expected a lusher pitch, but instead found a “quite bare” surface that “looks an absolutely belting cricket wicket”.

Mark Wood wraps up warm
Mark Wood (above) will replace Ollie Robinson in chilly Dharamsala - Gareth Copley/Getty Images

The outfield has been a long-standing issue, with Australia’s Test a year ago moved to Indore, and problems during the World Cup. It has been relaid, however, and looks much better, with Jonny Bairstow – who will play his 100th Test – praising the “brilliant job” done by the ground staff since England were last here in October for his 100th one-day international.

At 1,500 metres above sea level, there is a chill in the air comparable to an early season County Championship fixture, and England have swapped their trademark bucket hats for woolly ones, and also received a shipment of puffer jackets.

Seamers tend to have more say here than at other venues in India but the pale wicket – which was used in a Ranji Trophy match last month – is likely to persuade England to stick with their two young spinners, Shoaib Bashir (who has a slightly sore spinning finger, after a heavy workload in Ranchi) and Tom Hartley, rather than selecting a third seamer, either Robinson or the uncapped Gus Atkinson. Stokes said the team would once again be selected without his own bowling in mind, but it is likely he will bowl a few overs for the first time since the Lord’s Ashes Test in June.

Stokes promised there would be none of the “departure lounge syndrome” he has experienced on previous tours and is confident his team have kicked on in India. That is despite the 3-1 scoreline being the same after four Tests as it was on their last visit to India in 2021. There has been a general dip in England’s form over the last year that has seen Stokes’s overall record as captain drop from 10 wins in 11 Tests to 14 in 22. Even if the series is gone, they have the carrot of being the first touring team to win two Tests on a tour of India since 2012.

“We want to win this week,” Stokes said. “The message again, in the huddle this morning, [was that] we’ve been on so many India tours, you know what it’s like when you get to an end of a long one that sometimes you start thinking about the end of the game.

“Whereas honestly, I don’t think that anyone is thinking like that because every opportunity we feel at the moment is special to play for England. Because we’ve lost the series, it doesn’t mean that this game is different to what last week was or the week before. We are playing international cricket and playing for England. Playing for England is the biggest and most wonderful thing to be able to do as a cricketer.

England's huddle
There was no sign of departure lounge syndrome in England's huddle this morning, according to Stokes who believes a victory would emphasise how well his side have done - Gareth Copley/Getty Images

“If you take the result by itself you’d say, ‘Oh, we’ve going backwards’, but we haven’t. The individuals and the team have massively evolved on this tour. Even before we got here, I hadn’t seen the group for a very long time because of the rehab on my knee, but progression doesn’t always show itself with the results. I think the way in which everyone committed to becoming a better version of themselves from when we last played was quite obvious.

“Everyone’s fitter. Everyone was just – I don’t want to say there’s more desire – but it was just a really different feel around how we operated from the summer before [2023]. When you know that you’re part of something special, you want to work your nuts off to keep your place in the team.

“We’ve definitely evolved as a team. Just because the scoreline at the moment reads 3-1, it doesn’t mean that we’ve gone backwards. There are lots of these things that we have massively progressed on as a team whilst out on this tour.

“We haven’t been the pushovers like many teams have looked like when they’ve come over here because of how dominant a force India are in their home conditions.”

Stokes hailed Bairstow – who will be one of two players bringing up their Test century, alongside India’s Ravichandran Ashwin – as one of “England’s finest all-format batters”.

Bairstow, who is joined for the occasion by a large contingent of family and friends, admitted it would be an emotional moment.

“Like in every game, I’ll put my best foot forward,” Bairstow said. “No matter what it is, I’ll be going out there, chewing my gum, puffing my chest out and trying to have a good time with the other 10 blokes out there. Whatever the situation is, we’ll be going out there with smiles on our faces, like we have done in the whole series.

“I’m proud. You know what I’m like, an emotional guy, so yeah – get the tissues ready.”

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