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News

Ben Stokes unfazed by Bazball backlash as England brace to go again

Backs Robinson to come good in first outing of series, on 'interesting' surface in Ranchi

Will Jonny Bairstow continue to get backed by Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes?  •  Getty Images

Will Jonny Bairstow continue to get backed by Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes?  •  Getty Images

"It looked interesting, didn't it? I don't know. I can't say much." It was perhaps the most diplomatic answer Ben Stokes has given in India so far.
Coming into this tour, England made a conscious effort not to moan about pitches. Just like any team at home, curating a surface on their own terms was India's prerogative. Complaining about them does little but make you seem like sore losers and, worse still, create paranoia within your own ranks. The internal messaging was simple: deal with it. The preparation in Abu Dhabi, on raked, sand-laced strips, was done with this in mind.
They have largely stuck to that - DRS gripes aside, of course. The pitches at Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam and Rajkot have been excellent throughout, evolving to provide variety and, ultimately, rewarding quality. And, as per the 2-1 scoreline, India have been the better team thus far.
Things are set to take a turn at Ranchi, so to speak. The tourists were greeted at the JSCA International Stadium by what they regarded as an odd-looking 22-yard strip. Two days ahead of the Friday start, it was already cracked, with plates that some players expect to shift when under pressure.
"I don't know, I've never seen something like that before so I have got no idea," Stokes said, when asked on how it might play. "I don't know what could happen.
"If you looked down one side of opposite ends it just looked different to what I am used to seeing, especially out in India. It looked green and grassy up in the changing-rooms, but then you go out there, it looked different. Very dark and crumbly and quite a few cracks in it."
England had an inkling these conditions would be the most unusual of the series when it was announced that Jasprit Bumrah would be rested for the fourth Test. Bumrah's 17 wickets at 13.64 have come in a variety of situations and deliveries, and India won't mind if there's more on offer for their spinners in his absence. Particularly with a 2-1 lead.
England have to grin and bear it. As vice-captain Ollie Pope observed: "If it does spin from ball one, I guess it's an even playing field".
As such, Stokes is considering whether to revert to the spin-heavy attack of the first two Tests, though he will wait for one final look on Thursday before deciding whether to bring off-spinner Shoaib Bashir in for James Anderson. Another option, particularly if England anticipate a short match dominated by the need for fast scoring in turning conditions, could be to reinforce the batting with Dan Lawrence stepping in for Anderson. Though he has yet to play a Test under Stokes, the England management have long rated his positive approach, while his own idiosyncratic offspin has been known to extract sharp turn.
The one certainty at this juncture is that Ollie Robinson will replace Mark Wood, who expended plenty of energy during the defeat in the third Test and needs a rest.
It has been an intriguing tour for Robinson. He has been almost entirely in the shadows, having spent his last series as one of the main protagonists. His last competitive match was the third Ashes Test at Headingley, where he was limited to just 11.2 overs in the first innings before a back spasm ruled him out of the rest of the series. He had been Australia's main antagonist up to that point, aggravating plenty off the field while on it having a modest impact, with just nine wickets at an average of 28.40.
The six months between the last of those 19 Test caps and the build-up to this tour has been spent wisely. He knocked around 20 seconds off his 2km time in a fitness drive that has him looking leaner and more equipped for the rigours of energy-sapping work India asks of seamers.
For a player lambasted publicly for his lack of fitness by former bowling coach Jon Lewis during the 2021/22 Ashes, omitted by Stokes for the first series in the 2022 summer against New Zealand and told by his captain to shape up, then failing to play a full part last summer, this is an important juncture for Robinson. An undulating two years presents a talented cricketer with 76 career dismissals at 22.21 an opportunity to impact a high-profile series. This must-win Test will be the 30-year-old's first in India.
Robinson has not gone through the motions while on the periphery of this series. His partner, Mia Baker, is out for the duration of the tour, and the pair have recorded a few episodes of their podcast, "Chatting Balls", and played a few rounds of golf during their downtime.
Most importantly, Robinson has maintained a high level during nets, showcasing skills that worked so well in Pakistan last winter on similar decks not conducive to seam. It has not gone unnoticed.
"I think he has worked incredibly hard while he has been out here," Stokes said. "And it is tough for someone like Ollie, who's played such a big part in the game over the last two years, where he has not taken part in a game and the stuff he has done away from the game itself has been very good.
"I told him today he has been a great example of doing the right things and waiting your turn if it comes. Not playing the first three Tests can be tough and disappointing. But the way he has cracked on and got his fitness stuff in and not let disappointment get in the way of a potential chance that might come in this series.
"He's got unbelievable skills to be a successful bowler anywhere in the world. What we've seen in England is he's very skilful, but we've seen more than that in Pakistan. It's similar but different here, but the skill he possesses, he can find any movement, and his release point is always going to be dangerous.
"The skill will always be there. But since that chat [in 2022] he's worked on everything I thought that would get the best out of him, but also the team. Having Ollie Robinson able to bowl three spells and back it up the next day is going to do any team the world of good."
Stokes would not get drawn on definite statements on selection, not until he gets one last look at the pitch on Thursday afternoon. That included staying coy about his participation as an allrounder.
He bowled at Jonny Bairstow for 35 minutes during Wednesday's training session - the first time he had bowled at a batter following surgery on his left knee in November. A potential breaking of the "pinky promise" made with touring physio Ben Davies that he would not bowl in India should be covered off by a beer. Before that point, Stokes wants to see how he pulls up after his longest bowling stint through this rehabilitation period.
"My knee itself was absolutely fine today bowling," he said. "It was just good to push past that 20-minute barrier, which is what I've been working around at the moment. It might be a bit stiff but we'll wait and see."
As a collective, the last few days have been focused on the emotional recovery from the 434-run battering in Rajkot. The most galling defeat of the Bazball era - and there have only been six, set against 14 wins in 21 Tests - led to a significant backlash against the new-ish movement. Was Stokes surprised by the reaction?
"No, it's sport, innit," he shrugged. "You get plaudits when it goes well and a bit of s**t when it doesn't. It's part of it. I've been around long enough to know that, but we crack on."
His immediate reaction to the loss was to get the players together in the away dressing-room and warn them of criticism from outside their circle of trust, as well as the need to shed the defeat as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, he appreciates individuals will have their own reflections on what went so wrong, something he regards as a good thing.
"Me, as a person, and I'm sure every player in the dressing-room has reflected in some way on that game. But in terms of the result, no.
"I think as long as everyone's reflecting on a game, whether you perform or don't perform, and then that's given you a chanc ien the next game to do something better, I think that's the best way to look at it, rather than reflecting too much on the result. That's sort of how I look at wins, defeats, whatever it may be.
"You can have a good game and lose, and a bad game and win, so reflecting on your performance as an individual is the most important thing to do, rather than reflecting on the result itself. So many things go into a Test match and focusing solely on the result of the game is not the best type of reflection."
One thing this group has shown is an ability to turn the tide. An opening defeat by an innings at Lord's in the South Africa series two summers ago was followed by two dominant wins. Similarly, a 2-0 deficit to Australia last summer, with the ethos under immense strain, was flipped in spectacular fashion to square the Ashes two-all. Stokes puts it down to preserving "a pretty level vibe", which he will carry forward into a match that will either keep the series alive or consign England to a third consecutive winless series.
"It's just what we're good at, taking every game as it comes," he said. "That's what we have done ever since I started as captain and we'll go out there and try to play to the best of our capabilities.
"You will have good days and bad days, good games and bad games. Going out there and sticking to the way that we know allows us to play our best cricket is what we constantly focus on. That's what we'll be doing in this game, the next game and other games too."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo