Stokes urges England focus: ‘We want to win this week’

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For the first time under Ben Stokes’ captaincy, England will be playing for pride in a Test match.

India hold the spoils, and all England have is the carrot of leaving with a 3-2 scoreline by becoming the first team since 2012 to win two matches in a series against the hosts. Though that is mainly down to the fact not every Test nation is afforded five Tests in these parts. Even Australia were only given four this time last year.

That Dharamsala is hosting this fifth and final Test does add extra context of scenery and, for some, divinity. A number of the touring party will meet the Dalai Lama on Wednesday morning. At this point, England’s own spiritual leader is unlikely to be among them.

The series may be gone, but Stokes’ focus remains for this final stretch of this tour. “Well, it’s like whenever we play,” he replied when asked what, aside from a few World Test Championship points, are at stake. “We want to win this week.”

Complacency is not an option, particularly with the sense this team needs to step up to the next level. Missed chances against Australia last summer stung, and similar spurned opportunities in India speak of the need for a talented group to start handling these pressure situations more effectively.

“It’s not a mental or a mentality thing,” Stokes said, matter-of-factly. “All you can do is work your hardest and try your nuts off in the nets because that’s where you get better.”

It was in the nets on Tuesday morning that England came the close to freezing those proverbials off. Most of the squad trained in beanie hats, which were brought over during the break between the second and third Test, along with a few long-sleeve cream jumpers. Cooler temperatures and even rain forecast on day one make this match an altogether different proposition.

England are entertaining picking a three-pronged seam attack for the first time on this trip, but will wait to see how what Stokes described as a “belting deck” as far as batting is concerned, with surprisingly little grass given the rain over the last week, looks on Wednesday afternoon. Shoaib Bashir is nursing a split spinning finger, having bowled almost 38% of his first-class overs in the last month. He is likely to be the one that makes way for the extra pace option.

With James Anderson fully fit after a quad strain kept him off the field for the final session of the fourth Test – and just two away from 700 career dismissals – Mark Wood could return for his third match of the series. And while Stokes lauded uncapped quick Gus Atkinson as “an exciting talent”, Ollie Robinson may retain his place in the XI after a disappointing first appearance since last July in the defeat at Ranchi.

Robinson went wicketless in 13 overs consigned solely to the first innings after picking up a back issue running between the wickets while compiling his maiden Test fifty. It dramatically stifled his effectiveness and in turn blunted England’s cutting-edge with the ball. His misery was compounded by a costly drop of Dhruv Jurel in India’s first innings.

Stokes took the opportunity to back Robinson, whose Test record still reads an impressive 76 wickets at 22.92. And he gave a clear indication he sees the 30-year-old as an important part of England’s future.

“You are more gutted for Ollie that something on day one, his back going, which affects the role he can play in the long run. He is more disappointed that he couldn’t help the team out as much as he’d like,” he said.

“With Ollie, we look at the effort he put in as an individual leading up to and on this tour. His work ethic away from playing was very good, and he gave himself the best chance of being in position to win that game for us.

“The thing to look at is that he was out on the field, trying to influence the game even though he wasn’t feeling 100%. A lesser man would have put their hands up, walked away and not even tried.”

Stokes saved special praise for Jonny Bairstow, ahead of the Yorkshire batter’s 100th cap. The pair have a long association, starting from age-group cricket. And it was instructive that Bairstow rated his 2022 summer – Stokes’ first as captain – as a broad highlight of his career.

Naturally, Stokes was unwilling to take credit: “I’m not the one who’s out there doing that,” referencing the 681 runs struck across just six Tests that season. But as a close friend of Bairstow, and someone who brought up three figures himself in the third Test at Rajkot and brushed it off, he knows how much this will mean to the 34-year-old.

“This is probably going to be more of an emotional thing for Jonny than it ever was for me. I don’t need to go into details as to why about the whole family. He’s got his mam, sister, partner, little baby boy and some friends here.

“Playing for England means so much to Jonny and means so much to his family as well and to play over 100 ODIs, 100 Tests – a lot of cricket for England – it means a hell of a lot to him. He deserves everything that gets spoken about him in the build-up to the game and throughout the week as well.”

But amid all the Bairstow-related pageantry, and the possibility of narrowing the gap between them and India, England first need to approach this fixture like it matters, even if it carries little weight in the grand scheme of things. Stokes made a note of reiterating that to the team before training got underway.

“We’ve been on so many India tours, you know what it’s like when you get to an end of a long one – that sometimes you start thinking about the end of the game,” Stokes warned.

“I don’t think that anyone is thinking like that because every opportunity we feel at the moment is special to play for England. Because we’ve lost the series, it doesn’t mean that this game is different to what last week was or the week before.

“We’ll think about the plane and getting home when we’re in the airport. So I won’t be thinking about that whatsoever until the game’s done.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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