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Analysis

A project in the balance as England confront the need to evolve

Chastening series loss forces reappraisal of team's approach, as McCullum reaches halfway mark of tenure

The mood of the England dressing-room has followed a predictable pattern across this five-Test tour of India.
They were buoyant in Hyderabad after a fine win in the opening Test. Then they brushed off defeat in Visakhapatnam, helped in part by a valiant effort in pursuit of a 399 target. India's stoic response to going 1-0 down was further mitigated by the upcoming break in Abu Dhabi, which offered England a chance to regroup.
Defiance came in the aftermath of the 434-run defeat in Rajkot, England's worst loss by runs since 1938. Ben Stokes called a team meeting immediately, urging his players not to dwell on missed opportunities, having had India 33 for 3 on day one, only for their hopes to be crushed by an eight-wicket collapse on day three. He warned they would cop it from all angles but urged them to cut out the noise. Going harder in Ranchi was the only option.
Eight days later, England were hurting even more, as India took down a target of 192 and, with it, the series. Praise for the team's efforts to get within five wickets of victory was followed by another rallying cry. Use the next 10 days to shed the disappointment, was the message, and set the record straighter in Dharamsala by sealing a more flattering 3-2 scoreline. On Sunday afternoon, however, having lost by an innings and 64 runs inside three days, the dressing-room, for the first time this series, was flat. As they sat here embarrassed, England realised their efforts had, ultimately, come to nothing. After a long eight weeks, they were spent.
It was then that Brendon McCullum gave a speech to lift the group. There were positives, he insisted, though not enough to tilt the series their way. But there was no shame in losing here in India, to this opposition.
Buoyed by his words, if only at that moment, the players roused themselves one last time, filtering out of the dressing-room and back onto the outfield with a football, just as India's celebratory photos were dying down. England did at least have one photoshoot of their own after James Anderson notched 700 Test dismissals that morning, though even he had to be coerced into posing in front of the Himalayas.
For the first time on this tour, all squad members were involved in the regular keepy-uppy game (otherwise known as PIG), including Stokes, who had previously avoided taking part to preserve his left knee. His surprise presence brought about an interruption as a member of the groundstaff invaded the game for a selfie. The captain eventually removed himself from the game, perching on the ground with a drink and observing from a distance.
It was a snapshot of the one thing England got absolutely right on this tour. Throughout a challenging series in which they have been second-best to a vibrant, transitional India team, the squad has pulled together, not apart. That should not be taken for granted.
But it also served notice of the end of the beginning of the McCullum-Stokes axis. Change is coming. And it is necessary.
These players - the 14 in the country, plus the two in Jack Leach and Rehan Ahmed who have returned home - will never be together as one again. The nature of tailoring a spin-heavy squad for an India tour; the age profile ranging from 19 to 41, the vagaries of form and, of course, life. Whether it's Anderson's longevity or the salient punts to select Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley because of, among other things, their height, the circumstances in which this group of players find themselves together will not be the same again.
The squad will return home aware they face a seminal, maybe even uncertain moment in their careers. A slump of seven defeats in 13 matches means a correction is coming, and not all are guaranteed to be a part of it.

****

Throughout the series, it was clear a changing of the guard was already in motion.
Had Joe Root not signed off the tour with a defiant 84 in Dharamsala, Ollie Pope would have joined Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett on the podium as England's leading runscorers. Both openers and vice-captain have offered an unmistakable presence throughout.
Crawley provided consistency at the crease - the only batter to average above 40 - with Duckett assisting his partner in five half-century stands during the series and a further two of 45. Big centuries for Duckett and Pope - a mammoth 196 to win the first Test - were reminders of their ceiling, but also salvaged their tour averages, with each man joining a exclusive list of five players whose only fifty-plus score of a five-Test series had been converted into a 150.
More broadly, the trio were key voices among the players and on the field: sociable, full of ideas, and constantly advising Stokes on tactical tweaks. Duckett, in particular, was regularly double-checking the captain's plans, even taking it upon himself to chat to bowlers after their overs, whether things had gone to plan or not. Though McCullum has called on the 29-year-old Duckett to be smarter with his public comments - whether insisting "the more the better" when asked about a chaseable target in the second Test, or suggesting that Yashasvi Jaiswal's stellar form had been inspired by England - he has become a key part of the brains trust.
That Duckett, Pope and Crawley are now senior heads is a product of an environment in which everyone is encouraged to have their say. But their growth has been a necessity given the lack of runs in the middle order, and with more established players assuming more subdued roles.
Jonny Bairstow's form (238 runs at 23.80) kept him largely preoccupied, even though he had an important role as one of the designated ball-shiners. Ben Foakes's 205 at 20.50 seemed to typify his uncertainty about where he stands in the bigger picture, despite excelling behind the stumps.
Perhaps no one was more noticeably withdrawn than Root. His series came in two parts, the latter was triggered by a century in Ranchi, which provided the bulk of his 243 runs in the last four innings. The previous six had reaped just 77.
He struggled with the ball after his off-spin had taken 4 for 79 in the first innings of the first Test. But the real kicker came with his reverse-ramp dismissal to Jasprit Bumrah in the Rajkot Test, which triggered a collapse from 224 for 2 to 319 all out, and a damaging deficit of 126.
The former England captain regards the shot as his way of proving he buys into a new expansive era under the leadership of his best mate, Stokes. But his overriding emotion was guilt at the poor execution and the disastrous knock-on effect of his dismissal.
England rallied around Root. Duckett came out swinging on his behalf when the fall-out had just got going. "I'm sure those people weren't saying that when he was hitting [Pat] Cummins for six in the summer." McCullum's response at the end of the third Test when asked if Root - averaging 12.83 at the time - needed to reassess his approach was equally dismissive: "It's Joe Root - crikey. I mean, seriously?"
Root was chastened by the scale of the criticism from outside the group and took it to heart. His only media engagement of the tour - the day after his 122 in Ranchi - ended up as an emotional defence of the shot and his right to play it.
"The reason I've played as many games as I have is that I've not wanted to stand still as a player, I have to try to keep evolving," he said. "If you keep on trying to play the same way over and over again, teams work you out, they figure you out, and they find your weaknesses."
Root did not play the shot to a seamer again on this trip but continued to groove it in training. During a net two days out from the fifth Test, Stokes offered a sarcastic "What are you doing, Joe?!" before giving a wry look to journalists watching on.
A return to comfort with the bat brought a more relaxed Root on the field. When Dhruv Jurel struck Bashir straight to Duckett at long-on in India's only inning at Dharamsala, Root down charged from slip as if he had scored the winner in a cup final. It turns out Root shouted out the team's codeword moments before the ball had been delivered, predicting a wicket would fall that delivery - otherwise known as "kegball". While understandably happy with his call, it did mean he had a buy a round of drinks for everyone in the team at the end of the Test.

****

It seems trivial to regard England's good spirits throughout this tour as a plus point. Particularly when fans are suspicious a laissez-faire approach is responsible for a run of results that has left the team without a win in their last three series, which includes last summer's Ashes.
But without it, the likes of Hartley and Bashir could not have thrived. This was epitomised by Hartley's emergence from a chastening first nine overs in Test cricket - which included Jaiswal hitting the first and fourth ball of his international career for six - to take a match-winning seven-fer at Hyderabad.
Hartley returned to the dressing-room crestfallen after his first day, but was immediately lifted when all his team-mates wanted to talk about was his six off Ashwin. Lauding the Lancastrian's batting has been a familiar theme, particularly as he was England's joint top six-hitter (six) alongside Crawley and Bairstow. All while finishing top of the pile on wickets with 22.
Similarly, Bashir's 17 wickets from just three appearances, including his first two five-wicket hauls in professional cricket, were made possible by the room he had been given to express himself. Despite missing the first Test because of visa issues, he slotted into the team in Visag and became one of the most charismatic members of the group. He, Hartley and Rehan, who returned home for a family emergency, finished the series with their stock and reputation enhanced.
At times, though, they were exposed, particularly through lacking consistency. Stokes was reluctant to entertain the question on Saturday, but it is worth considering whether England missed a trick by not playing an extra seamer at points on this tour to give them cover.
As the series progressed, India's batters treated England's spinners with less and less respect. While neither Bashir nor Hartley shied away in the last two Tests,and nor did England allow those matches to drift as such, there was a nagging sense that they were not as confrontational as they could have been, and certainly less confrontational than their opponents.
Much of that came down to England's inability to impose themselves on sound batting pitches, as well as India's superior skill, which enabled them to play their cricket one gear higher since that opening defeat. But it was revealing how successfully the home side's young core of batters were able to get on top of the visiting attack, and - in the fifth Test - get under their skin.
The final-day stouch involving Jonny Bairstow and Shubman Gill, with Jurel and Sarfaraz Khan chipping in, spoke of that discrepancy in aggression. Gill had riled Anderson the day before, asking why he hadn't retired yet, before becoming the bowler's 699th Test victim, albeit having already scored 110. Bairstow took umbrage and decided to go at Gill, but found himself outnumbered
Jurel frustrated England with a match-turning knock at Ranchi. Sarfaraz's no-nonsense batting irked a tired, tetchy attack, which became clear on the field when Stokes consistently tried to engage the 26-year-old during his five-over spell on day two in Dharamshala, but to avail.
The tourists had hoped the introduction of Ollie Robinson in the fourth Test would add some spice to proceedings, but a back twinge sustained while batting nipped that in the bud.
The last handshakes of the tour contained sprinkles of discontent as India seized a deserved 4-1 win in dominant fashion. England did not lack fight, but perhaps they could have fought more. Whether batting or bowling, what aggression there was had been passive.

****

Therein lies the balance England must now strike as they move on to the next stage of this project. A laidback approach has brought new faces to the fore and given scope for a new generation to come forward and seize responsibility. Now, the likes of Pope, Crawley and Duckett must use it to fashion themselves into a more hardnosed, ruthless outfit.
With 23 Tests under his belt as coach, McCullum has made it clear a new, tougher approach is required. The next 23, which will take the head coach to the end of his four-year deal, provide England with an opportunity for home retribution against India and a shot at Australia away after missing out on the Ashes last summer - but only if they improve.
"There are many very skilled cricketers around the world and many very good cricket teams," McCullum said. "If we stay where we are, we're not going to be good enough to be able to go toe-to-toe with them. With the skill level we have, if we can keep pushing guys to become better, more refined versions of what we have at the moment, then I genuinely believe we've got an exciting couple of years in front of us."
One of the main themes of the first two years of this project was giving Stokes, Root, Bairstow, and Anderson room to express themselves to carry a dysfunctional team forward. The players who were initially supplementary and given room to grow now must be at the vanguard of progress over the next two years.
If Bazball 1.0 was about allowing players to play without fear, 2.0 must be about those players holding themselves to account. A group that has been grooving how they play must now focus on grooving how they win.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo