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Match Analysis

No regrets for Stokes but another case of what might have been for England

Ranchi result elicits rare display of defeatism after Bazball fails its India acid test

In the end, it was a bit of an anti-climax.
Shubman Gill and Dhruv Jurel, 24 and 23, respectively, knocked about the remaining 72 runs with ease, giving us a preview of what Indian cricket might look like for the next decade. Teams come here, graft, sweat and, sometimes, get ahead. Then at the end of it all, India win.
Much like the last decade, to be honest. Which is why, on the face of it, a first defeat in eight series for England under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum is not all that bad.
Ahead of the tour, Stokes regarded victory in a single Test as success. England achieved that at the first attempt in Hyderabad. What followed, as India roused themselves to take the next three, vindicates the point he was making. Nevertheless, at the end of an undulating fourth Test in Ranchi, he cut a forlorn figure.
"3-1 doesn't look great," conceded the England captain, still wearing the toil of the day's 53 overs on his whites and face. For a good chunk of the middle of that, his side felt on the cusp of something extraordinary.
"We didn't have a chance in hell of even competing with India," Stokes said on the overall match-up. "But even today, that wasn't an easy win for India, and I think they would admit that."
The assessment of his team's chances was at odds with some of the key tenets for England under Stokes. Ironclad belief, competing no matter what, focus on bringing out the best of yourselves, and not thinking about the opposition.
Perhaps he was just being realistic, considering a "young, inexperienced team" was up against one unbeaten at home for the last 11 years. He spoke of the pride he had for the way the players "reacted to everything, even being on the wrong end of three results". But it was certainly his most negative, even defeatist, soundbite since taking on the role full-time at the start of the 2022 summer.
Maybe that's because this is the first time he has had to swallow defeat of this kind. Stokes, for all his altruistic qualities as a leader, has long been the worst loser in the England dressing room. That won't have changed as a skipper, and it probably makes the losses sting a little bit more. There had only been four in 18 matches leading into this trip. Having remained upbeat for every day of his 21 months in charge, here was an understandable first slip.
Faith in the principles remained, and certainly, as the fourth day in Ranchi progressed, Stokes had full faith a result would come with it. He was constantly tweaking fields, managing his bowlers and applauding between deliveries, bellowing instructions and encouragement throughout. When England took 5 for 36 to leave India shaken in their pursuit of 192, he was in his element.
That collapse, triggered by Joe Root, facilitated by Tom Hartley and then intensified by three wickets from Shoaib Bashir, was exactly what Stokes had promised them the night before. The players returned to the dressing room late on Sunday afternoon, gutted by how a day that began with them 134 ahead ended with India needing what can now be described as a modest 152 more for victory.
But Stokes, with support from McCullum, lifted their spirits and dared them to dream. As Bashir proclaimed on Sunday evening, having just pocketed his first five-wicket haul in professional cricket, "We've got a chance to be heroes."
Bashir's display put him front of the queue for that mantle, now with more than half his first-class wickets coming in two tastes of Test cricket. Together with fellow rookie Hartley, India were tied down, especially when 31 overs went by without a boundary coming off the bat. The spell was broken when Jurel laced Bashir through cover, which felt like a counterpunch to the gut given how few runs there were left to play with.
"They'll be able to leave at the end of this tour with their heads held very high," Stokes said of his two spinners.
As for the rest, Dharamsala offers some scope for solace. But as they split for the upcoming break ahead of that fifth Test - a handful, including Stokes, heading to Chandigarh, while the majority of the squad and the coaching staff travel to Bengaluru for a few rounds of golf - the opportunities spurned for what would have been a spectacular decider in the foothills of the Himalayas should rankle.
"This is by no means a weak India side, but it was a newer one getting to grips with itself. England preyed on those uncertainties at various points, but only made it count once"
A result such as this, with the odds against England from the start, is no time to reassess ideologies, and they certainly won't. But the question to be asked is if they were the best versions of themselves, for long enough. The answer is probably not. Eventually, they will have to wrestle with "why?"
England did not lose this series on Monday, just as India did not make it 17 home series victories in a row simply because of the class and poise of Gill and Jurel. But like the Ashes last summer, key moments have not been seized.
They had India 177 for 7 on day two here, after fighting tooth and nail for an excellent first innings of 353. They allowed India back in with a passive opening session on Sunday. Stokes opted to start with Ollie Robinson, who bowled as incisively as you would expect a man who had not played a competitive match since July, despite looking sharp in the nets.
It compounded matters when Robinson dropped a catch at midwicket that allowed Jurel to turn 59 into 90. And then during England's second innings, even in conditions Stokes said made it "nigh on impossible" for the batters to impose themselves in their usual manner, they were 110 for 3 before losing 7 for 35.
Rajkot, though, was the real killer. India were 33 for 3 on the first morning of the third Test after winning the toss, but were able to emerge with 445. England, in reply, were 224 for 2 before Joe Root played that shot to set off a collapse of 8 for 95, giving up a 126-run deficit. All while the hosts were a bowler down after R Ashwin was ruled out of the match with an urgent family matter. He returned on the final day to pick at the carcass of the fourth innings as England crumbled.
Consider India's absentees, too. The world-class duo of Virat Kohli and Mohammed Shami have played no part, while KL Rahul has been missing from the first Test onwards. Ravindra Jadeja missed the second Test, and Jasprit Bumrah was rested for this one. This is by no means a weak India side, but it was a newer one getting to grips with itself. England preyed on those uncertainties at various points, but only made it count once.
A project that has largely been successful will now faces its own mortality for the first time. And it does so as gleeful critics who predicted previous missteps that did not quite eventuate, now have a humbling defeat in India to feast on.
"That is something that will be said [now] that we have lost our first series," Stokes said of negative reactions to come.
"A lot of talking points are after the fact of them happening. That is something I have come to terms with, something the team has come to terms with. But the way we play is pretty simple.
"You can have it all taken away from you at the click of a finger, so why not enjoy every opportunity you have to play, and make sure you are doing it with a smile on your face regardless of what is happening? It is a very short career, so why not make it as enjoyable as you can?"
Outwardly, there are no regrets, and they do have positives to nourish them. But winning, as they well know, would have made this more fun. And the common denominator between this right here and against Australia last year is a sense England simply were not ruthless enough to seize the initiative - something they talk about often - when games were in the balance. Not that Stokes agrees.
"Ruthlessness? What is it? How does it show itself? Everyone goes into the game with their best intentions, when it doesn't pay off people say we're not ruthless but when they do, they say we are.
"I don't really understand the saying. That's from my point of view; we try to do what we think is the best way to win the game. It can be a throwaway comment when people say we're not ruthless enough. What does it mean?"
It was a defensive answer from a leader who always covers for his players. A character trait that, all told, is why England were able to have regrets against such dominant opponents.
At the same time, they now possess a glum-looking form sheet. Barring a victory over Ireland in a one-off Test at the start of last summer, England have not won their last three multi-match series, having drawn with New Zealand and Australia in 2023. They have lost five and won just four of their last 10 matches.
Context is important. Australia are the reigning World Test Champions, and India, the beaten finalists, have been the standard-bearer for the format across both cycles of the competition. The two-match series with New Zealand - outside the WTC schedule - was not shown the same level of vigour.
So, here we are. All done and dusted with a Test still to go. For the first time under Stokes and McCullum, the team must rouse themselves for one final push with little on it but pride in the shirt and pride in the process. The last match of the series must be the start of a new iteration of an approach that has breathed life into English Test cricket and jolted the format but needs refinement. For the time being, a group of talented cricketers will rue what might have been for the second time in nine months.
The haters said Bazball could not work in India. And the haters were correct. Honestly, great call from the haters.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo