England braced for trial by spin in make-or-break fourth India Test

<span>Ben Stokes with Brendon McCullum in the nets at Ranchi. 'It’s the next game that counts,’ said England’s captain of the response to their Rajkot loss.</span><span>Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images</span>
Ben Stokes with Brendon McCullum in the nets at Ranchi. 'It’s the next game that counts,’ said England’s captain of the response to their Rajkot loss.Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

There is a case to say that but for a young MS Dhoni being persuaded to set aside his ambitions as a goalkeeper in football to focus on cricket – the catalyst for a remarkable career captured in a Bollywood biopic – India and England might not be playing a Test match in his native Ranchi this week.

This is slightly over-egging things, the locals say. While the state of Jharkhand and its cricket association were formed at the turn of the century, the handsome 39,000-seater ground built 12 years ago owes plenty to the late Amitabh Choudhary, a prominent administrator from the city who, along with Dhoni, has a pavilion named after him.

Related: England need to realise fun cricket isn’t always smart cricket | Mark Ramprakash

But international sport is about on-field feats primarily and Dhoni – World Cup-winning captain in 2011 and a national hero from one of India’s non-traditional centres – clearly put Ranchi on the cricketing map. He effectively cut the ribbon at the stadium, too, swatting the winning runs against England when it hosted its first one-day international in 2013.

While that particular match was a one-sided affair, Dhoni’s broader reputation for taking games deep, for never giving up on a lost cause, is a characteristic shared by Ben Stokes. Although from an English perspective, the fourth Test that starts on Friday is about his team as a whole; whether they can set up a decider in Dharamshala after the 434-run thrashing in Rajkot left them 2-1 down and the subject of much criticism.

“That’s sport isn’t it?” said Stokes on Wednesday. “You get plaudits when it goes well and a bit of shit when it doesn’t. I’ve been around long enough to know that but we crack on. For me, it’s quite easy [to block it out] and it’s become easier for us because the way me and Baz [Brendon McCullum, the head coach] keep the language the same.

“Defeats like last week can have a bigger effect on the team than they need to. I’m comfortable with how I addressed that [with the team]. I know and we know it’s the next game that counts. Reflecting on your performance as an individual is the most important thing to do, rather than reflecting on the result itself.”

Since Stokes took over as Test captain in April 2022, last summer’s Ashes was the only time they have lost two on the bounce before this tour. Back then they fired themselves up through indignation at Alex Carey’s final-day stumping of Jonny Bairstow at Lord’s, hauling things back to a 2-2 draw (Manchester rain et al). Defeat in Rajkot brought more grumbles about the decision review system from Stokes but rage against the machine is not the same thing.

Related: Stokes set for surprise return to bowling for England in fourth Test

Neither are conditions, the source of much discussion, with a mottled, cracked pitch that has given rise to the prospect of a spin-heavy, fast-forward shootout. England (the team at least) did not complain when the style of play went this way during the 3-1 defeat in 2021, not that they coped particularly well either.

They are a different beast these days and why India would want to bring their inexperienced spin trio of Tom Hartley, Rehan Ahmed and Shoaib Bashir (if recalled) into the contest is not immediately obvious. But for a howling dropped catch by Axar Patel off Ollie Pope, 110 runs into a match-turning 196 in Hyderabad, the hosts would have already sewn up this series with surfaces on which all disciplines have come to the fore.

Either way, two days out, Stokes decided against narrowing down his plans to 11 or 12 players, as has previously been the case. Even the captain’s return to bowling in the nets – thundering in ahead of schedule after his knee surgery – was not followed by a commitment to do so come match-day. That said, there was a healthy endorsement of Ollie Robinson given Jimmy Anderson and Mark Wood may need a breather.

Unlike some of the younger quicks Robinson received only a one-year central contract despite 76 Test wickets at 22 and proof of overseas adaptability in Pakistan the previous winter. It in part reflected the 30-year-old’s fitness record, with his last competitive bowl coming at Headingley at the beginning of July when, not for the first time, he walked off with back spasms, 11.2 overs in and leaving others to pick up the slack.

England (possible): Zak Crawley, Ben Duckett, Ollie Pope, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes (c), Ben Foakes (wk), Tom Hartley, Rehan Ahmed, Ollie Robinson, Shoaib Bashi

Though a slightly Marmite character, prone to some of the bold public pronouncements that have led to this team being viewed as cocky in some quarters of late, Robinson looks in good shape; certainly more so than during the Ashes, when his bowling was described as “124kph nude nuts” by Matthew Hayden in the commentary box.

Robinson gives Yashasvi Jaiswal something new to think about at least, India’s wunderkind having largely chewed up the other bowlers. However, with Jasprit Bumrah resting, and if predictions about the pitch are right, the match may well be decided by how England fare against Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin.

Both spinners played that first ODI here in 2013 – Joe Root the one survivor for the tourists – when Dhoni delighted the crowd and Alastair Cook slightly bluntly said: “I have no interest in the fairytale.”

The question now is, can England take this series Dhoni deep?