Fog of post-truth Baz-chat obscures England’s progress under Ben Stokes

<span>The <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:England;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">England</a> captain Ben Stokes is a great player who happens to be charismatic, smart and also kind.</span><span>Photograph: Ajit Solanki/AP</span>

Horror show. Nightmare. Saga of shame. Put out of their misery, as India romped to a 3-1 series scoreline.

The verdict, there, of the cricketing commentariat not on England’s current 3-1 Test series defeat by India, sealed by a fine fourth-day run chase in Ranchi. But the verdict instead on the last time England’s Test team went to India, won the first Test, then lost the next three on some skiddy pitches. At which point, despite England having won their previous four series under Joe Root, back in March 2021 the world seemed fit to burn.

Three years on we have essentially the same outcome. And it will of course be tempting to contrast the softer, more doe-eyed verdict on England’s defeat by the same series score (with one still to play).

Related: Ben Stokes ‘incredibly proud’ of team despite England’s series defeat in India

Mention will be made, not least among baffled followers of other Test nations, of the cult-like aspects of the Stokes Supremacy, the bubble-speak about England’s attacking style bringing new levels of excellence out of their opponents – for this service, no charge – and the sense nobody around here actually loses a game of cricket, that this is simply part of the overarching universal energy.

Plus there remains the unchallenged new dictum that you cannot, for reasons that are unclear, enjoy the positive parts of England’s aggressive cricket, and also find things to improve on in defeat. It isn’t clear why this should be the case. But it’s what people say. So it must be true.

This is of course all part of the fun of this England Test team. Has there ever been a more bizarrely polarising tactical approach to this complex and fusty old sport?

Much of the extreme devotional stuff is to do with the power of personality. People love Ben Stokes, a great player who happens to be charismatic, smart and also kind, in an arena where this is not always an essential part of the leadership culture.

Set against this, other countries will continue to find the latest incarnation of English exceptionalism reliably infuriating. We are England. And we’re here to save Test cricket. In the meantime, and even in defeat, we will fill this space, dominate this conversation, make you say the word Bazball a lot more than you want to.

Hence the irritation on Indian cricket social media, AKA Cry More Twitter, over the gushing at Stokes’s captaincy even as Rohit Sharma leads his team to a 3-1 series lead with a depleted team. At close of play on the fourth day there was already a hot response to Stokes’s post-match comments.

These involved praising his young spin bowlers (understandably, they played well); mentioning the tough Indian conditions on day three (understandably, they were tough); and speaking about how the series had also brought the best out of India’s young talent. Again this is probably true, but Ben Duckett has already queered the pitch on this point with his we-taught-the-world-Bazball chat after the third Test.

In the middle of which, lost in the fog of post-truth Baz-chat, it is easy to lose sight of the only two questions worth asking as England taste their first series defeat of the Stokes regime. The first is the usual one: is this team still getting better, and does it need any tweaks?

England remain eighth in the World Test championship table, and would be fifth even with the 19 points docked for slow over rates. Stokes ultras will make much of the team’s excellent overall win percentage, but this number also requires context. Teams outside of the Big Three are priced out of red- ball cricket now. Zimbabwe used to be seriously good. England really should expect to be hoovering up the minnows of the new world order.

For all that, the current series has been a genuine step forward from the debacle of 2021. England were thrashed out of sight in those previous three defeats. Here they have won sessions and moments, enough to make even a 400-run defeat feel, somehow, like a good 400-run defeat. They lost in Ranchi chiefly because of the period on day three where they lost seven for 35 then saw India race to 40-0 in the fourth innings.

Either side there was a fair chance of taking this to 2-2. Perhaps Jimmy Anderson could have opened the bowling ahead of an off-spinner who had no experience of the new red ball at this level. But yes. Can’t enjoy X. Then still criticise Y. This is the thing now.

As for the actual components of the team, the batting feels a little vague below the openers. England in the Baz era have only ever dropped one batter, Alex Lees, consistent with the overall aim of generating confidence and ultra-good vibes. Perhaps something has also shifted in the way batters will be judged and retained. The top six seem geared to produce performances rather than maintaining averages.

Ollie Pope averages 16 in the last year outside of two major innings against Ireland and India, the last a sensational counterpunching matchwinner. Jonny Bairstow averages 30 in that time but is also seen as a match-winner, a moments guy, a spirit animal.

Probably this is necessary. There is too little time available to develop the kind of red-ball defensive game previously seen as a platform for a Test career. Dan Lawrence, the current backup, has played for the Vipers, the Stars, the Gladiators and the Spirit in the last six months, four franchises across three white-ball formats. It would be nuts to expect him to slot in now and play like Bill Athey.

The bowling remains a mixture of aged seamers and the increasing oddity of Ollie Robinson’s recent career, from 74mph no-balls in Ranchi to a last Test wicket in the slow-bouncer barrage of Lord’s in June. Matthew Potts surely deserves a turn, although Robinson won’t be the first red-ball specialist to struggle with a lack of cricket as Tests are pushed to the edge of the calendar.

This brings us on to the second question worth asking about this England team. Is it fulfilling the basic mission statement of securing its own future, of making Test cricket a product people desire a little more?

This was key to the gloom of three years ago. Phrases like “extreme burnout” were being bandied around. Everyone looked drained and unhappy, the entire occasion shadowed with decay.

The Stokes reboot was intended as an answer to this existential issue of making Test cricket into something people wanted to play and watch. If the real question is: is this thing still good for Test cricket, then the answer must be yes, even in defeat.

Given the entire Stokes era is essentially a response to that 2021 end-of-days feeling, anything that makes a Test tour of India an event for both players and the home audience must be good. On that score, as we lower once again the Bazball mind-filters, England are still winning.