Brilliant Stokes bails out sloppy England


All hail Ben Stokes. In the sweltering Chittagong heat, with England staring a sub-continent humiliation in the face, the Durham all-rounder took responsibility, stood up, and boldly won the touring side this chaotic Test match. Having amassed 103 runs in the match and bowled over 25 overs in inferno-like conditions – that Stokes himself described post-match as requiring perpetual sun-cream application – Stokes dug deep, rescuing his side from what would have been an indelible stain on the legacy of the Alastair Cook epoch.

England were poor in Chittagong. The fact that it was left to one superb, side-balancing and determined individual in Stokes to salvage a victory for England in this first Test was so telling: England must improve all aspects of their game in these turning conditions if they are to pose any form of menace when they face the ominous task of encountering India in November.

It was only Bangladesh – whose previous closest Test defeat was by 77 runs against the West Indies at a flat Dhaka in 2012 – but the home nation applied themselves and posed a significant threat in this game. Their spinners were terrific, spearheaded by the excellent 18 year-old Mehedi Hasan, whose seven wicket haul on debut demonstrated considerable promise for the future, especially given the ageing of the talismanic Shakib Al Hasan.

Bangladesh’s batsmen were also impressive, most notably the vastly improved Imrul Kayes at the top of the order along with the often inconsistent Tamim Iqbal. Sabbir Rahman – another debutant – was also superb in the second innings, being left stranded on what at one staged looked to be a match-winning 64 not out.

England toiled in the Chittagong heat. The trio of spinners struggled, with Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali showing palpable signs of lack of sub-continent experience and struggling to adjust to the turning conditions. Only Gareth Batty – whose polemical selection largely paid off – was capable of finding any form of control on this pitch, picking up four important wickets in the match.

The touring side’s batsmen also demonstrated considerable ineptitude in these testing conditions. England’s top four – that seems incapable of providing any form of stability at the start of an innings – failed again, with captain Cook, debutant Ben Duckett and the usually reliable Joe Root failing to make any contributions of note. The vulnerable-looking Gary Ballance also had a bad game, failing to repay his contentious selection. Not even the next flight from Heathrow to Chittagong contained this many passengers.

England got their selection wrong in this game. Whilst the case for a Zafar Ansari debut was strong owing to the spinner’s left-arm action – that would provide more variety in this England attack – and his batting ability, the selection of 39 year-old Batty appeared to be the correct one, standing out as England’s superior spinner. However, things must change at the top if England are to stand any chance of winning more comfortably in the Bangladesh capital on Friday.

The selectors must be bold and pick young Haseeb Hameed to partner Cook at the top of the order. Hameed has had an excellent season in Division One with Lancashire, amassing over 1000 runs against some terrific attacks. He made two hundreds in the same game against Yorkshire, the first Lancastrian to achieve such a feat. He has the temperament and mentality for Test cricket. He has the ambition. He must play in Dhaka.

Ben Duckett – whose recent white-ball form and warm-up game half-century justifies another chance in the Test side – should drop down the order to number four, replacing Ballance. England’s number four resembled a rabbit in the headlights in this game, prodding tentatively against Bangladesh’s combination of spinners and being trapped in front in the first innings before questionably choosing to sweep the bowling of Taijul straight to leg-slip in the second. He needs to learn how to play spin.

Despite the failure to select Hameed, the balance of this England side functioned well, with Moeen Ali demonstrating great maturity and patience batting at five. Jonny Bairstow and Stokes both had excellent games, putting on a critical 127 together in the second innings after inheriting a potentially fatal second innings position of 62-5. Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad did well enough in what was a dismal pitch for seam bowling.

Whilst speculation has manifested itself concerning dropping a seamer – probably Broad – to make way for a fourth spinner in Ansari, the balance of the side needn’t change. Deploying three spinners is sufficient, and Ali and Rashid will inevitably improve in the second game. Chittagong functioned as a real learning curve for them, with significantly tougher tests to come as the winter progresses. England’s sub-continent attack will develop.

Gareth Batty showed real promise in this opening game, providing England with the accuracy and control that was required to peg the Bangladesh batsmen back. Whilst they played the experienced England spinner well – sweeping and cutting – Batty managed to find considerable life in this pitch, as evidenced by the profound bounce he produced to remove Mushfiqur Rahim in the second innings. Batty will have an important role to play throughout the next few months.

The character England showed late on day four and on the final morning was laudable. In such difficult and alien conditions – both physically and atmospherically – they kept their heads and demonstrated great resolve. Stokes embodied this spirit.

They must improve in Dhaka, however. Hameed has to play, replacing the struggling Ballance to give England enhanced stability and solidity at the beginning of their innings. The spinners must learn from their Chittagong experience, employing the favourable conditions more effectively and to their advantage.

England should win the series two-nil. Lessons will be learned and subtle changes must be made, but this side will gel and develop. Tough and inauspicious tests beckon. In this thrilling Test match, though, let’s all just appreciate the brilliance of Ben Stokes.

Photograph: Vimeo

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