Ben Stokes endures all-round off-day as England fail to strike right balance
Lack of familiarity with England T20 role plays part in underwhelming display
There can be no worse sound for a bowler than the blare of the no-ball klaxon, not least when you are under the pump, defending an under-par total with a set Virat Kohli on strike. For Ben Stokes, it was a brutal moment which summed up a frustrating night.
Having foxed him with a slower ball only to find out he had overstepped by a fine margin, Stokes rushed Kohli for pace as he looked to swing him into the leg side, hitting the sort of length that had worked so well for England in the series opener. But the ball flew away off Kohli's outside edge, travelling 61 metres to clear the fielder on the third-man boundary and fly into the lower tier. Stokes offered a wry smile in response.
But an over later, that expression had turned to one of clear frustration. After Ishan Kishan had creamed him over square leg for six off the sixth ball of his first (and only) over - which cost 17 - Stokes had a straightforward chance to dismiss the same batsman at long-on off Adil Rashid. A wicket might have given England half a sniff, but he shelled the catch and the rest of the chase proved to be a cruise.
Those ten minutes were the nadir on a night which lent credence to the theory that England are yet to work out how to get the most out of him in this format. Stokes' overall record in T20Is says more about the infrequency of his appearances as his ability - this was only his 10th appearance since England's last series in India, in early 2017 - but England will be desperate to get him as much experience in his roles with both bat and ball as possible ahead of the World Cup later this year.
In particular, it was intriguing to see him coming in below Eoin Morgan at No. 6, with the two switching roles from the positions they had filled during England's series in South Africa at the end of 2020. "It was primarily based on trying to get me into the game while the seamers were on and not necessarily the spinners," Morgan explained. "It didn't actually work out that well - they continued to bowl spin and one over of seam. My record against seam coming into that stage of the innings is better than against spin, so that was the call that we made."
The result was that Stokes failed to time the ball during his scratchy innings of 24 off 21 balls, which included only a solitary boundary down the ground off Bhuvneshwar Kumar. According to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, Stokes was out of control for nine of the 21 balls he faced as he struggled against India's seamers and their intelligent variations at the death. As a relatively slow starter who usually takes five balls to get set, it may be that Stokes would benefit from coming in ahead of Morgan in the future.
Given the weight that England have rightly placed on IPL experience in their T20 strategy over the last five years, it is surprising that they use him in a significantly different role to the one Rajasthan Royals found for him last season, when he was promoted to open and made a success of the job. It seems unlikely that there will be a re-think for either team, which means England will be desperate for Stokes to get as much exposure as they can in the final three games of this series.
"[His best role] is in the middle order," Morgan said. "We saw in South Africa how well he played. I don't think it's an easy role: I've done it my whole career and it treats you like crap the majority of the time. You need guys that really play the situation of the game and aren't that bothered about taking risks when the team needs it. Ben is a guy that has that attitude and definitely has the skill to do it."
Stokes' bowling is also a relevant consideration, not least given the balance that he has provided England with since the start of 2020. In that period, he has bowled 18 overs in eight matches, taking seven wickets at an economy rate of 8.72, and while those numbers are hardly eye-catching, they have offered Morgan a crucial sixth option in the middle overs when things have not gone to plan for one of his five main bowlers.
With Moeen Ali likely to come into the side in Tuesday's third T20I - which is due to be played on a red-soil pitch that England are expecting to be conducive to spin - Stokes will again be required to play a supporting role with the ball, and if India bring Axar Patel back into the side as a third spinner, he will be tasked with hitting with the spin to take him and Yuzrendra Chahal down in the middle overs.
England see Stokes as an automatic pick in their T20 side, and their problems replacing him in the home series against Pakistan and Australia last summer - when they were unsure whether to bring in an extra batsman or a bowling allrounder in his place - demonstrate why. But with a World Cup looming, lingering doubts remain as to whether he can transform his pedigree in Test and ODI cricket into the shortest format on a more regular basis.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98