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Stokes considers return to bowling ahead of fourth India Test

Captain fulfilling allrounder status could open up selection for Ranchi and Dharamsala

Brendon McCullum says he may have to hold Ben Stokes back from bowling in the ongoing series with India but admits it is "a good sign" the England captain is open to the possibility of reprising his allrounder role in the final two Tests.
Stokes has been progressing his bowling throughout this tour following an operation on his left knee at the end of November. Having started in Visakhapatnam ahead of the second Test, he has stepped up his intensity in Rajkot over the last week, and has been bowling back at his full pace.
Stokes last bowled competitively in June, during the second Test against Australia at Lord's, and was adamant he would not do so in this five-match series after a "pinky-promise" with his physiotherapist. But speaking after England's heavy defeat in the third Test, Stokes re-opened the door he had closed, given progress has been "a lot faster than I thought [it] would". He even felt he could have bowled in the match, which England lost to go 2-1 down in the series.
"I'm not saying yes, I'm not saying no," he answered, when asked about bowling in the fourth or fifth Test. "Me being me, I'm always very optimistic about most things. That will be a more detailed chat with the medical team about what workload I have done to pass me off as not being a massive risk.
"I managed to bowl at 100% in one of the warm-up days here which made me feel pretty good. I felt like I could have bowled in the game but that would have been stupid."
Speaking on Monday, McCullum was buoyed by Stokes' confidence. And while acknowledging Stokes would not do anything drastic, there was an appreciation that he, as head coach, had a duty to ensure his captain did not push himself unnecessarily.
"Well, it's good that he's actually getting into a state where he thinks he might bowl," McCullum said. "But Ben is clever; he's really clever as well. He won't bowl unless he thinks he's legitimately able to bowl. The problem would be if he starts getting into a spell and then he can't get out of the spell. So we'll see what unfolds.
"If he does get that bit between his teeth, then let's see where the danger lies there and try and pull him away from it. But it's a good sign."
The return of Stokes the allrounder would dramatically improve the balance of the XI. Having operated with just one seamer for the first two Tests, along with four spinners - including Joe Root - England dropped Shoaib Bashir to pick both James Anderson and Mark Wood for the third.
Anderson and Wood excelled in the first innings, with Wood taking four of the five dismissals between them. But they went wicketless during the second and looked drained during their collective 23 overs. It meant an inexperienced spin attack was exposed as India piled on the runs to give England an insurmountable target of 557.
With the Test in Ranchi starting on Friday, Anderson and Wood will have just four days to recover. And while McCullum stated England will see how they pull up, at least one is likely to miss out, with Ollie Robinson expected to come in ahead of Gus Atkinson. If Stokes does get the all clear to resume bowling, it could allow England to recall Bashir and have two seamers and four spin options at their disposal, giving them the best of both worlds, particularly with the captain's ability to reverse swing the ball and bowl bouncers. It would also give him an opportunity to follow his 100th Test cap with the milestone of 200 wickets. He is currently on 197, at an average of 32.07.
Wickets were shared around in the last Ranchi Test back in 2019, in which India beat South Africa by an innings and 202 runs. England will only get into conversations around selection after their first look at the surface on Wednesday when they first train at the JSCA International Stadium, and could confirm the XI a day before the start, as they have done for the three previous Tests.
"We've got two really good options on the sideline as well with Ollie Robinson and Gus Atkinson," McCullum said. "So we've got a really good squad to pick from. We just need to work out when we get there what conditions we're going to be confronted with and see the health of the army, and then make a decision on what we go with.
"Obviously we haven't seen the conditions in Ranchi yet. I think it might spin. I guess it should spin but we'll see when we get there. But, look, we're really comfortable with what we've got and we're certainly not going to add to the squad.
"We've got a group of players here who have played some outstanding cricket so far over the last three Test matches and whatever XI we decide to go with we will fully back. Hopefully we'll be in a different situation to what we're in now."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo