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Ben Stokes defends England aggression as batsmen succumb to trial by spin again

Allrounder admits that batting challenge in India has been hardest of his career

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Ben Stokes says that the conditions England have faced in the past three Tests in India have been the hardest challenge of his career, but insists that the team should not be castigated for their aggression - with the bat or, in his case, with the verbals - on the opening day in Ahmedabad.
After winning the toss and choosing to bat first for the third time in the series, England were bowled out for 205 shortly after tea, with Stokes himself getting embroiled in a lively exchange of views with Mohammad Siraj and Virat Kohli en route to top-scoring with 55 from 121 balls.
By the close, however, India were winning all the battles that mattered, having reduced the deficit to 181 for the loss of Shubman Gill, and are well placed to cement their 2-1 series lead and secure their place in this summer's World Test Championship final.
Speaking at the close to the host broadcaster, Siraj - who claimed two wickets on a brisk return to the team - told how Stokes had given him gaali (abuse) in the early stages of his innings, with Kohli also getting involved after he informed his captain of what was going on.
However, both batsman and bowler played the exchange down afterwards, with Siraj stating that "these things happen". Stokes meanwhile insisted that the sight of professional sportsmen getting stuck into an intense exchange should not be seen as a transgression.
"It was just two professionals showing that they care about a sport that they love," he said. "A lot gets said these days when two guys seem to come to words out in the middle, but it was nothing untoward. We're competitors going toe to toe, and no-one's backing down. For me, that's what it was, trying to get one over one another."
In the end, however, India were able to get one over England with a more conventional weapon. It is a measure of England's struggles against the turning ball this winter that, having posted a match-winning 578 in their opening innings of the series in Chennai, today's effort was their second-highest total in six subsequent attempts, and actually exceeded their match total of 193 at the same venue last week.
But as Stokes admitted, the conditions on this opening day were far more manageable than they had been last week, and his own frustration at falling to Washington Sundar after a two-and-a-half-hour innings was matched by the team as a whole, after England had let slip another opportunity to make the running in the series.
"We are more than capable of scoring 300 on a wicket like that so we're frustrated but can't dwell on it too much," Stokes said. "We sit down as a group, and try to put it behind us, but it's easier said than done.
"It was pretty apparent we weren't going to get anything like we did on day one in the last Test [when England were bowled out for 112]," he added. "It was the bounce that was more the issue than the turn, but overall it's a much better wicket than it was last time we played here, so we're disappointed not to still be batting."
Stokes himself has been in a lean run of form, with an aggressive 82 in the first Test giving way to a next-best score of 25 in five subsequent innings. In particular, he has been troubled by the spin of R Ashwin, who has dismissed him 11 times in Tests to date, and though he avoided that fate for a change today, he still departed in a very similar manner, as Sundar slid one into his front pad from round the wicket to end his promising stand with Ollie Pope.
"Fifties are never going to win you a Test match, so I'm very disappointed to get in on that wicket, start feeling comfortable with it and get out again," Stokes said. "Especially after spending two-and-a-half hours protecting myself from the ball that skids on, I ended up getting out to the ball that skids on, so it was very frustrating."
Nevertheless, Stokes was adamant that England would not be apportioning any blame for their latest batting shortcomings, and insisted that the team's major goal at this stage of a tough tour was to absorb the lessons being handed out by a well-drilled India bowling attack, and be ready to perform better the next time they arise.
"I've played 70-odd games now and these are the hardest conditions I've faced as a batsman," he said. "It's a case of finding it in your own way. It's not about coming together and saying what we need to do better as a group, but how can we go away as individuals and progress when we come back next time.
"Everyone plays in a different way, I have a gameplan out here that is completely different to Joe Root's, which is different to Dom Sibley's, and if the outcome of those gameplans is that we score runs, then happy days."
It wasn't such happy days on this occasion, however. Sibley set the tone for another substandard innings as Axar Patel bowled him with a slider in his opening over of the day, while his fellow opener, Zak Crawley - whose fluent fifty on the first day of the last Test had been one of England's few positives - tried to take the aerial route to the same bowler, and holed out in the covers.
"It's such a fickle sport, cricket, it's why we love it," Stokes said. "It's such a leveller. If Zak had put that into Row Z, everyone would have said what a great shot because the outcome would have been a six, but unfortunately on this occasion he hit it straight up in the air. But that happens.
"As batsmen you have to take risks to score runs. That's how Zak chose to go about it today, and you can't hold that against him, because he had the backing of the whole dressing room. Just because he's hit one up in the air early on, are we going to pull him into the room and say never run down the wicket again? No."
Stokes did, however, have some words of encouragement for Dan Lawrence, one of the few relative success stories of England's innings, after he made 46 from an unfamiliar role at No.7, albeit he too departed with one rash stroke too many, a wild swing at Patel and an easy stumping for Rishabh Pant.
"When Spoons [Chris Silverwood] told him [he was batting at No.7], he was like, 'I don't care where I'm batting, I'm playing'," Stokes said. "To have that attitude and keenness at a young age, just to want to play in an alien position, is such a good trait to have, and it was refreshing seeing him go out and stick to the way he's got into the team. He'll be disappointed with the runs he's got so far, but we've seen a small glimpse of what he can offer."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket