Sports, Cricket

Ben Stokes determined to finish on high amid India’s Himalayan peaks

Published : 06 Mar 2024 09:33 PM

England are 3-1 down going into the fifth Test and will suffer a first series defeat under Stokes' captaincy whatever the result in Dharamsala of this Test. 

But England’s captain says his side have ‘massively evolved’ despite results and the Test team have a spectacular setting to prove it the colourful Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA) Stadium is a relative newcomer to Test cricket, being number 114 out of the 122 grounds to have hosted a men’s game. 

But nestled 1,317m above sea level, with a Toblerone of snow-capped Himalayan peaks as its backdrop and eagles swooping overhead, it is unquestionably among the most breathtaking.

Add the presence of the Dalai Lama, whom England’s cricketers are due to meet on Wednesday, a day out from the fifth Test, and the Tibetan population who live in exile in Dharamsala, and it ranks among the most fascinating, too. Even though India have won the series, those attending the region’s second Test match – its first since Australia lost by eight wickets back in 2017.

All of which seems a decent antidote to what is known in cricket as departure lounge syndrome; the collective wave of mental fatigue that can strike a defeated touring side before a series is completed. Not that Ben Stokes views it this way. 

The England captain is taken by the venue – it is impossible to be anything but, hence the avalanche of photos on social media – but is also confident of motivation regardless of India’s unassailable 3-1 lead.

“I don’t think that anyone is thinking like that,” Stokes said on Tuesday, regarding thoughts turning towards home. “We feel every opportunity to play for England is special. That’s just our mentality and our mindset, regardless of where you are, or how long you’ve been away. But that shouldn’t take away from the fact that this place is pretty special.”

There are, of course, a number of milestones this week, be they 100 Test caps for Jonny Bairstow and Ravichandran Ashwin, Jimmy Anderson needing two wickets for 700, or young Yashasvi Jaiswal simply needing to nudge a single to break Virat Kohli’s Indian record of 655 runs in a Test series against England. Stokes shrugged off his 100th cap earlier in the tour, calling it “just a number”, but the sentiment regarding the buzzing Bairstow was different.

”Just because the scoreline at the moment reads 3-1, it doesn't mean that we've gone backwards,” said Stokes.

“There are lots of these things that we have massively progressed on as a team whilst out on this tour.”

England's success in the series opener in Hyderabad was one of their greatest victories in an overseas Test, raising hopes Stokes' men could become the first visiting team to win a Test series in India since 2012.

But England have since suffered three successive defeats, despite having solid opportunities to take control in each of the second, third and fourth Tests. Overall, England have lost six of their past 11 Tests. 

The emergence of young spinners Tom Hartley and Shoaib Bashir in India has been a huge success, but England's middle order has too often been found wanting.  

The likes of Jonny Bairstow, who will play his 100th Test in Dharamsala, and wicketkeeper Ben Foakes may need a strong performance in the final Test to push their case to be included in the home summer.

"If you take the results by itself you'd say, 'we're going backwards', but we haven't," said Stokes.

"The individuals and the team have massively evolved on this tour.

"The way in which everyone committed to becoming a better version of themselves from when we last played was quite obvious; everyone's fitter and it was just a really different feel around how we operated from the summer before.