A shadow of himself: Ben Stokes spooked by ‘bogeyman’ Ashwin

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In the second innings of the third Test, when Ben Stokes was out leg before to Ravichandran Ashwin, that was the 11th time the England allrounder had fallen prey to the Indian off-spinner. A faster delivery nabbed Stokes and he didn’t review the on-field umpire’s decision. He looked defeated.

A tally of 146 runs in six innings in the series so far is not befitting Stokes’ stature as the world’s best allrounder. He started off well, with 82 in the first innings of the first Test. On a benign pitch, however, he was playing without pressure. Joe Root and Dom Sibley had already laid the foundation for a big total. Stokes has had scored 7, 18, 8, 6 and 25 since. As the ball started to turn, he has fizzled.

Stokes’ poor form is a big reason why England have failed to counter India’s spin attack on turning pitches. In a series where he was expected to be Joe Root’s biggest support batting-wise, the 29-year-old has let his team down. England’s rotation policy has made matters worse. Stokes has played Tests in India before. He is an Indian Premier League regular and conditions here are not unknown to him. His failure has made England a one-man batting unit. Bereft of support, Root’s batting, too, has slipped after his double century in the first Test.

Not a happy hunting ground

Since August 2019, Stokes has scored 1,422 runs in 18 Tests, including four centuries. His 135 not out against Australia at Leeds will be remembered for a long time. He lorded over the West Indies last season before taking compassionate leave to be with his ailing father. However, Stokes’ record in India has been underwhelming. His batting average here is 32, compared to his career average of 37, while his bowling average in this part of the world is 46, vis-à-vis his career average of 31.

“Stokes is obviously one of the best players, who has delivered on many occasions. But to be the World No.1, a player needs to be successful against every kind of bowling in different conditions,” said former Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal. He described England’s selection flaws that he says have affected the performance of players like Stokes.

Is Stokes’ problem against spin on turners technical? Iqbal disagreed. “Certain bowlers become bogeys to certain batsmen, and Ashwin has become Stokes’ bogey bowler, but the term ‘technical’ is overused by coaches. Technique is what suits a batsman to adapt to certain conditions, not what the coaching book says. Ashwin has a gained a psychological upper hand over Stokes, but the latter is good enough to overcome that. Stokes has reached a level where he knows what technical adjustments he needs to make to counter spin on turners. He doesn’t need any coaching for that. Stokes’ problem is that he is not playing his natural game.” Iqbal told The Indian Express.

No approach working

On a rank turner at Chepauk in the second Test, Stokes was trusting his defence. He was ready to bide his time in the middle, as his knocks – 18 off 34 balls and 8 off 51 balls – would attest. He was dismissed by an Ashwin beauty in the first innings, while the left-hander became too cagey in the second. In Ahmedabad also, he tried to graft in the first innings. Three futile attempts later, Stokes decided to throw his bat at almost everything in the second dig.

“Stokes’ batting is full of flair and, at the moment, flair is missing from his game. England are already three-four wickets down for very little when he is coming to the crease and he is restraining his natural game, thinking that he will be criticised if he gets out playing with flair. This is down to England’s ridiculous rotation policy, which is preventing them from playing with a settled team. The biggest flaw in English cricket at the moment is this laughable rotation policy, which is affecting the rhythm of their players,” Iqbal felt.

“Top-order batsmen are struggling to get into the groove because there’s no continuity. Jonny Bairstow played well in Sri Lanka before he was rested for the first two Tests in India. When he came back, he bagged a pair. A batsman can get out for nought in both innings, but in difficult conditions, Bairstow had to start all over again. And as the top order is not scoring runs, England’s middle order, a batsman like Stokes, has been suffering from the negative trickle-down effect. Teams are built not by rotation but by continuity.”

Rotation a problem

With England scheduled to play 17 Tests this year, their cricket hierarchy has focused on workload and mental fatigue management in Covid times, when players are operating under strict bio-secure protocols.

“Test cricket is the pinnacle. Don’t think players would like to miss a Test to take rest. England, at the moment, don’t have the bench strength to replace the players they are resting. To rotate, you have to have bench strength like India.”

The ex-Pakistan skipper was clear that more than the Motera pitch, England’s poor cricket was the reason for their defeat in the third Test.

“On bad wickets, you get out caught around the bat, you don’t get out bowled or LBW. A lot of batsmen got out to straight deliveries. Test cricket is about mastering different conditions, which England have failed to do.”



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