Ben Stokes’ side were flat, short of ideas and even began to look like England of old

Ben Stokes' side were flat, short of ideas and even began to look like England of old
Ben Stokes and England had a day to forget in Rajkot - Reuters/Amit Dave

So fond did England become of batting last in the early days of the Bazball era that, upon winning the toss against India at Edgbaston in June 2022, Ben Stokes said “we’ll have a chase”.

Their belief in their ability to haul in any target was built mainly on brilliant batting. Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow had marshalled chases of 277, 299 and 296 against New Zealand. They would score a hundred each as England chased down 378 at Edgbaston, too.

But it had also been built on England’s never say die attitude in the third innings, and Ben Stokes’s ability to prise out wickets even in situations that looked desperate. Funky fields, good bowling and inner belief meant the target so often stayed manageable and the game never quite slipped away totally out of their reach. Just when it was required a rabbit would be plucked from a hat.

At Lord’s, New Zealand had been 242 in front, four down, but England snuffed out the last six wickets for 25. At Trent Bridge and Headingley, New Zealand were kept in check with consistent wickets. At Edgbaston, India had a lead of 146 on first innings, then were were effectively 336 for four, only to lose their last six for 42. At Headingley last summer, Australia were 100 in front one down in the third innings, but set just 254, which England chased, just.

Even when they have not quite succeeded in chasing, England have stayed in the game in the third innings with the defeat due to errors made earlier or later in the game. Look at Lord’s last summer, when they gave up a 91-run lead, found Australia 178 for two, then took the last eight for 92. Had it not been for an infamous stumping, a target of 371 might have been achievable. In Visakhapatnam last week, through excellent bowling, fielding and captaincy they did well to keep the target to 399 when India took a 143-run first innings lead It was too little, too late, but they were in the chase until Stokes’s brain-dead run out.

On the third evening in Rajkot, the run ended. England finally looked a little lost in the field as a game slipped away. Yes, they will tell us that they believe they can chase anything. India have looked wary of England’s batting all series, and are a bowler down, so will want every run they can get, but they have time to get them. Ben Duckett said the arrival of nightwatchman Kuldeep Yadav shows that they are “wary”. Asked what England would chase, Duckett smiled “the more the better”. Comments like these are standard fare these days, to be taken with a pinch of salt.

They may even be proved right, so freakish have some of their achievements been. But as Yashasvi Jaiswal and Shubman Gill, the Vizag centurions, made hay again, sharing an easy-paced stand of 155 that was only broken by the former’s injury, England for once looked devoid of the enterprise, the ideas and the energy that have so often characterised their performances in the second half of Tests.

England looked flat, a little resigned even, when they took the field. This was actually the smallest first innings deficit they have given away this series (126), but the manner in which it happened must have stung. Joe Root, Stokes and Duckett all had fresh memories of regrettable dismissals, and the final five wickets had fallen for just 20. Lately, the tail has been wagging.

“We’re always positive, but it did happen quite fast so there wasn’t much time to have much emotion,” explained Duckett. He added that Stokes issued a rallying cry about “getting at them”.

England pride themselves on always being positive, and looking the same whether things are going well or badly. This time, their body language suggested things were going badly. A penny for the thoughts of Jimmy Anderson and Mark Wood, operating on just 71.1 overs’ rest, and looking weary in the field.

Tactically, Stokes could not keep a lid on things like he so often does. Jaiswal played himself in against defensive fields. After tea, those fields became more attacking, so Jaiswal launched Anderson for a six and two fours, before getting stuck into Tom Hartley. When Jaiswal started to struggle with his back, Gill launched into Wood and Rehan Ahmed. Stokes cycled through his five bowlers, but at times you wondered if he might just rip up the carefully-laid rehabilitation plan and bowl himself.

The young princes of the Indian top order were enjoying the partnership that England’s batsmen should have been, cruising through the evening, rotating the strike, then dishing out punishment wherever possible. The game had been entirely flipped on its head as India added 152 in 35 overs in the final session of the day. The only wicket to fall was Rajat Patidar, who slapped Hartley’s full toss to midwicket.

These passages happen in Test matches, where the team on top inexorably hammers home its advantage. For a while, though, they had stopped happening to England. It leaves them needing their greatest heist yet.

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