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Analysis

Ben Stokes urges England to keep the faith as rollercoaster hits first dip

Highs of early summer feel distant, but England captain focussed on process not result

Ben Stokes sports a wry smile as the South Africa lower order adds frustrating runs, England vs South Africa, 1st Test, Lord's, London, 3rd day, August 19, 2022

Ben Stokes sports a wry smile as the South Africa lower order adds frustrating runs  •  PA Photos/Getty Images

Well, they did tell you.
Managing director Rob Key warned everyone to "buckle up and get read for the ride" before the Test summer got going. And after the highs of four wins on the bounce, here was the dip. A first defeat for the Ben Stokes-Brendon McCullum axis.
The first victory of that sequence came here at Lord's against New Zealand. A successful chase of 277 didn't just capture the imagination of England's dejected Test fans, but also a dressing room full of players demoralised after a bruising winter. In the days after its conclusion, Stokes spoke of making "positive more positive", with a word of caution that a negative would be just around the corner. It took a couple of months to come but when it did, it was concentrated into just six sessions.
After chasing down 378 against India with seven wickets to spare, Stokes declared his side were attempting to "rewrite how Test cricket is being played, in England especially". In their very next outing, they have recorded their first innings defeat at Lord's since 2003. Against South Africa once again, no less.
Yet even with forewarning, even knowing this England men's Test side are fully aware of the risks of their uncapped attacking approach, even for those who fully bought into the engagement and fun this group have instilled into the longest format, this was a chastening thud back down to earth. And as the sun shone for the rest of what was supposed to be the final session of day three - and with the prospect of no weekend cricket in a completed Lord's Test for the first time since records began - the doubts over this new way of being were pushing through a surface that they had never been far from in the first place.
It is important at this juncture to add a little perspective. Were you not entertained royally by four consecutive fourth-day chases? If so, here's the trade-off from a team that wants to believe in the impossible, but might - just occasionally - find that impossible wins. And, really, was this any worse than the consecutive defeats last year against India at Ahmedabad ( the first in two days, the second in three or the Ashes-losing hammering at the MCG on Boxing Day? At least this time they had a plan, even if it resulted in losing 20 wickets in 82.4 overs.
Stokes' post-match press conference was as predictable as it was necessary. He pointed out that any suggestion from him or the coaching staff that they should have gone about things differently - even if there were times during remarkable spells from Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje when they perhaps should have done - was not the way to go. "We're heading into mixed messages if I say anything different. Everyone's so aligned in the dressing-room, from the management to the players, about how we operate."
Friday's effort with the bat was certainly not as grim as Wednesday's, even if we can lump them in as, broadly, one and the same. Though the conditions on day one were far more testing than the clear skies and bright sunshine on day three, the second innings carried all the associated pitfalls of playing without considering consequence. The mantra instilled is to be unafraid of expressing yourself. Perhaps even to bat like no one is watching. And if you had tickets for Saturday and Sunday, you won't.
Zak Crawley registered another failure of 13, Matthew Potts' absurd heave down the ground (bowled by Marco Jansen) when Stokes was looking comfortable at the other end was ignorant, and Stokes' picking out of the one fielder on the leg side moments later was an uncharacteristic in-game misjudgement. But otherwise, South Africa's attack - notably the two ninety-plus demons - could assume more of the credit.
"It's not something I'm going to be throwing our toys out of the pram over," said Stokes. "The message for me and Baz upstairs will be, did we commit to everything the way we committed to the first four Tests of the summer? If everyone can say, yes, 100%, we just didn't execute, then things are good. We'll move on to the next Test match, and go out there and try and win."
There will be no debrief, as such. Both changing rooms were a hub of socialising well after the broadcast cameras had been turned off and the public sent on their way to find train-less routes home. Both were full of conversation and beer for those partaking. The difference between them, beyond the South African flag draped across the away balcony, was one group savouring an occasion that will live long among them and the other working to leave it where it was. Just as it's too early to celebrate, it's too early to panic.
The next few days ahead of the second Test at Emirates Old Trafford, which begins on Thursday, will be full of positive reinforcement for the hosts. Part of sticking around in the home changing room here would have been to shed what they need to shed, to head to Manchester at the start of next week with nothing left to dwell on.
"I just like to ride a wave of whatever comes," Stokes added, when asked how much he will focus on what has been this week. "I'm really trying to hit home that I don't want this team to dive too much into the results of games. If you play good or bad cricket, that's going to determine the result. If you fixate too much on the result, you get ahead of yourselves. Did we go out there and really believe what we know worked for us?
"You've played the game in the past," he said of the message he will relay to his team. "You have to live in the moment and ride the wave, whether that be of success or failure. We've got two games left. If we hold on to this for too long, and carry baggage into the next game, we're already one step behind South Africa. I want us to be a team where we're one step ahead.
"We can't be great every day. This week was just off for us. But we're not going to hold on to it for too long and carry any baggage to Manchester."
It was befitting of the last three months that Stokes maintained a philosophical air after the last three days. Because so much of how this started out was based on players grasping a concept at odds with the proud, constricting traditions of Test cricket they were forged from. Now, after one defeat in five, is not the time to be steering away from that.
How the world outside that changing room reacts will be its own point of discussion. Stokes insisted in the lead-up to this series that the public had been won over by the style of play rather than the results. "We would have got their support even if we hadn't won," he said on the eve of the match, "which is a very rare thing to do as a sporting team."
If they had lost those three Tests to New Zealand, and that one against India, Stokes mused he "wouldn't be sitting here changing the way I ask the lads to play". However, it would only be natural for those same lads to go into their shells, especially if the hypothetical sequence of results was as galling as this one has been. Even after one real loss here, second-guessing is no great crime.
England have been consistent from the outset that this mindset-dominant approach is far from foolproof. They told their fans, the media, the rest of the world. Even you. Especially you. Whether you're a believer or a hater, they told you so you could deal with it.
Now it has failed for the first time, the onus is back on the team. Therein lies the biggest challenge for Stokes and McCullum so far - ensuring the individuals that matter most in this movement are still undoubting believers when they attempt to make amends by playing exactly the same way next week.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo