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Analysis

Stokes gives England a glimpse of what might have been

Captain is a delegator by profession but a warrior at heart

By the time his team-mates arrived to congratulate him, Ben Stokes was already stomping back to his mark to bowl his second delivery in 251 days.
Some were laughing. Even James Anderson, who had toiled in a wicketless morning session. Mark Wood was one of many in disbelief, hands on his head, having been rinsed for 39 from his first six overs of day two by Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill.
Stokes had just begun his first competitive over since July at Lord's against Australia, ending a streak of 15 innings without turning his arm over. Following knee surgery at the end of November after the 50-over World Cup, he has slowly built himself back up in India, teasing a trundle from the second Test onwards, before finally pulling the chord here in the fifth and last match of the series. He marked the occasion by taking out the India captain with his first ball.
It was, well, vintage Stokes. Full force into the crease, seam angled towards gully as soon as it left his right hand, hitting the pitch, leaving Rohit - 103 to his name - playing down the wrong line and taking out off stump to end a stand of 171, 110 of which had come in the morning session. The cameras picked up Brendon McCullum on the sidelines covering his eyes and shaking his head. Even a man who made a career out of inspiring through remarkable feats was stunned by what his skipper had just pulled out of the bag.
"He's a freak, isn't he?" beamed assistant coach Jeetan Patel. "It was almost written in the stars that he was going to bowl a jaffa first up and get Rohit Sharma out who was on 100.
"It's quite funny because he came on to bowl when the English crowds are waking up - they're flicking on the TV and the first thing they see is Ben Stokes bowling a really good delivery to Rohit Sharma."
For those tuning in, Stokes' lack of celebration would have alerted them to the match situation. India were 275 for 2, ahead by 57, having started the day 76 behind. He had broken the pinky promise made to England physio Ben Davies that he wouldn't even consider bowling in a match on this tour, but India were breaking all English spirits. Their first-innings lead is now 255 and counting.
In the lead-up to this fifth Test in Dharamshala, with the series gone, Stokes reiterated the bowling attack he had chosen was picked without considering himself as a bowling option. That has been the approach since that Lord's Test. Taking the ball for the second over after lunch - telegraphed by emerging earliest from the break and warming up with a few deliveries to Patel - will buoy many an England fan at the prospect of Stokes reprising his valuable allrounder role this summer. But it was also as close as you will get to an admission that England have been a seamer light for all but the opening Test.
The good vibes from Rohit's dismissal kicked up a notch seven deliveries later when Anderson moved to 699 career dismissals, bowling Gill for 110, with no further runs added to the scoreboard. England sensed an opportunity to turn the tide with Devdutt Padikkal and Sarfaraz Khan new to the crease. And that is when Stokes brought an altogether different vibe.
He did not take another wicket in his eventual five-over spell but did draw a couple of mistakes, both from Sarfaraz, that kept the pair in check. The first was a tough return catch that Stokes shelled when the batter had just 2, though he had overstepped the front line. On 7, Sarfaraz was turned inside out by a similar delivery to the one which did for Rohit, only this one was wide enough to leave the stumps untroubled after beating the outside edge.
The tone of the match had changed considerably, and not just because Stokes had turned the air blue with a "f***" caught by the stump mics after his caught-and-bowled attempt. England have had been in the ascendancy on the field at various points on this trip, but this felt different.
An edge drawn from Paddikal was the debutant's first - and favourite - boundary, and drew a blood-red glare from Stokes. After the left-hander struck through the covers for his second in Stokes' next over, he dabbed a single to third to keep the strike and had Stokes for company all the way to the non-striker's end. Sarfaraz did his best to ignore Stokes' pressing for a reaction, and it was perhaps that unwillingness to engage that meant a usually destructive batter was at one point nursing 9 from 30 balls.
But Sarfaraz exploded out of his shell, blazing to a half-century, with Paddikal notching the same in a stand of 97 for the fourth wicket. By the time they were split, India's lead was 158, before the tail added 97 more. Their charge, devastating as it was, beginning when Stokes' had brought his spell to an end.
Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley whittled away at the tail, with a lot of good energy in the field. But, in a way, it made the atmosphere Stokes created with the ball stick out a little more. It was, edgy, more confrontational, giving India a sense England were not just there to graft, but to fight. Not since that final day in the first Test at Hyderabad have England been able to concoct that sense of unease. Either side of it, India were the ones throwing all the punches.
There are mitigating factors for the collective ineffectuality either side of Stokes' spell. The pitch was more docile than anticipated. The early movement not as prevalent as the day before - which says more about Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj's brilliance, even if they went wicketless. Even the ball went soft surprisingly early, despite holding up well throughout this series. None of this seemed to be in play when the captain was bowling, mind.
In his 2016 autobiography "Firestarter", Stokes was almost apologetic when explaining the hostile mood purveyed when bowling: "I tend to get really angry with myself. Once adrenaline and competitive spirit combine, the red mist tends to descend, and it's nothing to do with whether you like the bloke you are up against."
Beyond "Stokes, the allrounder" adding some extra balance and thrust to England's two- or three-spin attacks, you wonder if that competitive edge could have helped the team succeed in the pressure moments spurned over the last eight weeks. He has been bullish in the field, and challenged his players to push themselves throughout. All, in their own ways, have responded. But it's hard not to imagine, given his inspirational qualities, that seeing their leader truly fired up in the heat of battle would have drawn a more cold-blooded approach from them.
Maybe it could have coaxed more from the man himself. Stokes has never hidden the fact that he is at his best when he has "double the chance to change the course of matches." As much as captaincy scratches that itch, nothing motivates him more than the "you versus me" battle.
He is a delegator by profession but a warrior at heart. Yet the only opportunity to go toe-to-toe comes with his batting, where the burden of captaincy weighs heaviest, as Joe Root and Alastair Cook can attest.
Since starting out with 70 in his first innings, he has looked uncharacteristically timid for the rest of this trip. Often caught on the back foot deep in his crease against spin, including on day one to Kuldeep Yadav for a six-ball duck. At the time of writing, an average of 21.88 will be the lowest of his three tours of India.
The numbers are too awkward to crunch to determine whether Stokes bats better after he bowls. But anecdotally at least, we can look to Headingley 2019, and the mammoth 24.2 overs in Australia's innings that preceded the miracle 135 not out to chase down 359. And, seeing as we are on the foothills of the Himalayas, why not posit the self-flagellation led to reaching a higher plane?
Sadly, none of it is that simple. "It was nice to see him back at the crease, but we've just got to be careful we don't push him too far," urged Patel, with a bucket of cold water. "It's still early days for him."
By the summer, Stokes will be back as a fully fledged allrounder, with a newly fixed knee and as fit as he ever has been. It bodes well for the coming two years leading into the next Ashes. But as another major series passes England by, it is hard not to think what might have been over the last two months.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo