It wasn’t the glorious return to action that Ben Stokes might have envisaged, more than 18 months on from the World Cup final at Lord’s. His first match back in England’s ODI team, at Pune on Tuesday, ended with a rather limp 66-run defeat, while his much-vaunted promotion to No.3 proved to be something of a non-starter, as he was caught in the covers for 1 from 11 balls.
And the atmosphere at Pune didn’t have a whole lot in common with that fervent July afternoon either – a rapt Lord’s crowd replaced by the echoing silence of another locked-out contest. Just another day at the office for Stokes and his team-mates, on a bio-secure tour in which the players’ points of off-field reference are all beginning to share a familiar theme.
“It felt like I was dropping into Gdansk in the first game of [Call of Duty] Warzone for a while,” he said. “It’s crazy to think it was my first game since the World Cup final. It’s amazing how quickly time can pass but it was great to be out with the rest of the boys. I can’t remember [50-over cricket] taking that long but it might have been to do with the heat and the body was a bit stiff the next day.”
As Eoin Morgan has repeatedly stated on this tour, England’s ambitions in India extend beyond the basics of winning and losing, as they attempt to expand their squad options with back-to-back T20 World Cups looming ahead of the defence of their 50-over crown in 2023.
But the nature of Tuesday’s loss means that India are now gunning for England’s long-held status as the No.1 ODI team in the world. A 3-0 series loss would ensure a switch at the top, and while Stokes agreed with his captain that the rankings were not the be-all-and-end-all, he still acknowledged that such an upshot would smart.
“We look at it from a series point of view, that we’d be bitterly disappointed to lose it,” he said. “As we would any other. We deserve to be No. 1 because of our results and it’s obviously a fantastic thing to have next to your name as a team, but it’s not our driving force.
“Our driving force is the way we go about it and our attitude towards playing the game,” he added. “We know we’re a much better team than that, but one thing we’ve been very good at is putting previous games to bed quickly, whether that be a successful game or a poor game. All our concentration now is on tomorrow.”
For all the power and momentum that Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow were able to produce at the top of England’s innings on Tuesday, the clear missing link in England’s line-up was the absence of Joe Root at No.3, precisely the sort of uncomplicated accumulator who could have kept the innings bubbling along while the chase was under control.
Instead it was Stokes in the role – not for the first time in ODIs, as he batted at 3 on his maiden tour of Australia in 2013-14, even claiming the Player-of-the-Match award for a fine allround display in Perth – but an unfamiliar promotion all the same, and one that possibly has more to do with England’s planning for the T20 World Cup than the 50-over version.
Either way, he took his time to get in – as he was permitted to do in the circumstances, with England needing less than a run a ball with nine wickets in hand – but then got out to a mistimed drive off Prasidh Krishna, having struggled to find his timing against Kuldeep Yadav’s wrist-spin too. It doesn’t mean the experiment has failed, but it does ramp up the scrutiny with the series now on the line.
“There would be talk, whoever filled the place at No. 3 with Rooty not being here,” Stokes said. “People keep talking and I’ll just go out and try to do what I’ve been asked to do. That’s where my focus is, and the T20s have been and gone so I won’t worry about that.
“But I did actually message Rooty and asked him about his mind-set at 3, and he was pretty clear to me in saying just play the way you play.
“Just because he plays a certain way doesn’t mean I have to do it like that. We kept it pretty simple, but it’s just a slightly different role batting at 3 to my usual position in this team. I’m just potentially facing 100 balls compared to 60 or 70 like I normally do. I haven’t got to change too much, just face a slightly different situation when I start my innings.”
Stokes may get a further opportunity to hone his game in the top order when he links up with Rajasthan Royals at the IPL next month. He finished the last season in November as their preferred opening batsman, with Jos Buttler slipping down the order, and he rewarded that faith with a 59-ball century against the eventual champions, Mumbai Indians.
But, with competition for places hotting up among England’s white-ball batsmen, Stokes doesn’t expect his performances for Rajasthan to have a huge bearing on how England line up at the World Cup, with Roy and Buttler firmly ensconced as the team’s preferred opening combination.
“You look at that T20 batting line-up and everyone deserves to be where they deserve to play,” he said. “We have been formidable in the white-ball format for a number of years and why would we change that? It’s a talking point and it always seems to pop up, but just because we lost the T20 series doesn’t mean we need to start changing things around.
“When we win, nobody says too much but when we lose, everyone starts to pipe up and it starts to get like the gulag [in Call of Duty: Warzone]. I am happy where everything is in our white-ball team, because that’s our best formula to win.”
In the bowling stakes, Stokes was similarly under-used during the T20Is, bowling 12 overs across the five games for a total of three wickets. However, he matched that tally on Tuesday with the handy figures of 3 for 34 in eight overs, including the wickets of both openers and the dangerous Hardik Pandya.
“It was actually interesting coming back to bowl another spell,” he said. “It took about an over to get the body going again. It was a very, very heavy outfield and the body was getting used to standing up for four hours or something like that in 50-over cricket.
“It was nice to get the ball in the hand and get a few good spells in. But everything just felt a little bit lethargic to start, but I was happy to be able to get some overs under the belt and put a decent shift in.”
For all his success in white-ball cricket, however, including the crowning glory of his career at Lord’s, Stokes admitted that the winning feeling that accompanies a Test success – such as the team felt in Chennai at the start of this India tour – still set it apart as his favourite format.
“Whatever format you play, walking out representing England is enjoyable,” he said. “It is a tough question to answer … but the enjoyment you do get out of winning a Test match is a different feeling to winning a white-ball game, purely because the amount of effort and energy that you put into a Test match, especially if it does last the five days.
“You’re absolutely cooked. You get a real understanding of the effort that’s gone in from everyone. If you judge it by that, winning a Test match for England is one of the better feelings in this sport.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket