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Bairstow to be dropped? Biggest questions for England in India

With England suffering a massive 434-run defeat to India in the third Test in Rajkot, falling 2-1 behind in the five-match series, we take a look at some of the biggest questions facing Ben Stokes’ side…

Could Bairstow be dropped for fourth Test?

Given England’s two sizeable batting collapses in the third Test, the batting order is one area that could, and perhaps should, be addressed.

While Joe Root’s shot selection in the first innings drew strong criticism, there is no chance of him losing his place in the side, with attention instead turning to Jonny Bairstow after a return of only four runs in Rajkot and a series average of 17. Bairstow’s first-innings duck was also a record eighth by a batter against India in Tests.

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Nasser Hussain and Michael Atherton say they were disappointed with the timing of the shot which saw Joe Root lose his wicket in the first innings of the third Test.

Former England captain Sir Alastair Cook told TNT Sports he’d make the call and drop Bairstow, saying: “He’s had a tough tour so far. And India is a very hard place to continue going on that on the treadmill. I’m taking Jonny out of the firing line, to protect the player.”

That would see Cook’s former Essex team-mate Dan Lawrence come into the fold, “someone who is fresh and clear of all the debris so far in this series,” he added.

It’s not the way Sky Sports’ Michael Atherton would go, however.

“[Bairstow] has been so central to this project that I don’t see them leaving him out now, at a critical juncture,” he said on the latest Sky Sports Cricket Podcast.

“Everything they’ve done is about trying to give their players security and a feeling that they’re going to be backed to the hilt… I think they’ll back that experience and they’ll back him to come good.”

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Michael Atherton insists England must take their chances in the fourth Test, with India now 2-1 up after a 434-run victory in Rajkot.

England head coach Brendon McCullum also appeared to give the batter his backing, telling reporters on Monday: “I don’t have concerns over him.

“I’m not blind but he’s done so well for us. We know that a top-quality Jonny Bairstow is as good as anyone in any conditions, so we’ve got to keep on giving him confidence and block out a lot of the external noise.”

Will Anderson be rested for fourth Test?

What about changes to the bowling attack then? England would likely to prefer not to play 41-year-old James Anderson in three consecutive Tests, particularly with only four full day’s rest before the fourth match in Ranchi.

“My instincts would say they’ll freshen up the bowling, that they may bring in [Ollie] Robinson for Anderson and may think about [Gus] Atkinson for [Mark] Wood,” Atherton said.

England's James Anderson (Getty Images)
Image: James Anderson has played the last two Tests in India but might a third in quick succession be too much for the 41-year-old?

Anderson had a modest return of one wicket from 38 overs of toil in Rajkot, but was superb when taking five wickets in the second Test.

Wood, meanwhile, ripped out the Indian top order in helping reduce the hosts to 33-3 on the first morning of the third Test but his fitness and the management of his workload are constant concerns for the England hierarchy.

With the fifth Test scheduled for Dharamsala, where conditions – at altitude – are expected to be more beneficial to fast bowlers, perhaps now is the perfect time for England to rest their front-line fast seamers. Sadly, trailing 2-1 in the series, they may not have that luxury.

Plus, it would be a big ask of Gus Atkinson, on Test debut, and Ollie Robinson, on his first Test tour of India, to come into the fray with the series on the line.

England's Gus Atkinson in ODI cricket (Associated Press)
Image: England fast bowler Gus Atkinson has played nine ODIs and three T20 internationals but is yet to make his Test debut

Nasser Hussain said on the Sky Sports Cricket Podcast: “It’s one of those nightmare situations as a skipper. You’re needing to win and just want to play your best side.

“You don’t want to look too far ahead. And that’s one thing this side have done well, just react to the conditions in front of them and not plan too far in advance.”

Is England’s Bazball bravado too much?

England’s Bazball revolution under Ben Stokes as captain and McCullum as head coach has been truly remarkable, with their return of 14 wins from their 21 Tests in charge only telling half the story.

This team has yet to lose a series and, along the way, we’ve seen 500 runs scored in a day to set up a famous 3-0 whitewash win in Pakistan, numerous record run chases achieved and multiple personal milestones reached.

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Speaking on the Sky Sports Cricket Podcast, Nasser Hussain describes Ben Duckett’s century in the third Test against India as one of the best he has seen.

Performances have inspired such confidence in the group that it prompted Anderson to remark during the second Test, “if they [India] get 600, we’re going for it.”

When the visitors expertly positioned themselves at 207-2 after two days of the third Test – Ben Duckett 133 not out – Cook confidently remarked on TNT Sports that if England batted through day three, “they’ll be close to 800.” Then, when asked about a realistic target they could chase in the fourth innings, Duckett told reporters, “the more the better.”

Hussain remarked on what he saw as England’s hubris: “When you’re living in an environment in a bubble that has got so much good messaging and positive vibes, you go into a press conference and you’re never going to step back and go, ‘they may have got too many and we’re just going to play for a draw’.

“I enjoy their positivity but there has to be a little bit of realism in there as well. Obviously, chasing 600 in India batting last is not a particularly good option to look at.”

Hussain also took issue with Duckett’s comment that England and Bazball “should take some credit” for the way Yashasvi Jaiswal played in scoring his second double century in as many Tests, as the Indian opener smashed an unbeaten 214 off 236 balls in the second innings in Rajkot.

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Speaking on the Sky Sports Cricket Podcast, Nasser Hussain says England’s players must be humble enough to realise they can learn from India batter Yashasvi Jaiswal.

“He’s not learnt from you. He’s learnt from his upbringing, all the hard yards he had to put in growing up,” Hussain added. “If anything, lads, look at him and learn from him.

“I hope there’s a little bit of self-introspection going on. Otherwise it becomes a cult – and, at times, Bazball and this regime has been described as such, where you cannot criticise within or externally.”

Are England getting the best out of Root?

Root averages 50.12 in the Bazball era, a smidge better than his 49.19 mark before, but, with only 77 runs scored across the first three Tests in India and following a heavily-criticised first-innings dismissal in Rajkot, is this England regime getting the best out of their star batter?

The visitors, having pushed their score on to 224-2 on the third morning – 221 behind India’s first-innings total – were in position to bat all day, with Duckett on his way to a magnificent 153 at the other end. Root opted to play the reverse scoop to Indian fast bowler Jasprit Bumrah and succeeded only in picking out second slip to be dismissed for 18.

Since described by chief cricket writer Scyld Berry in The Telegraph as “the worst, most stupid, shot in the history of England’s Test cricket”, Root’s dismissal prompted a collapse of eight wickets for 95 runs, England all out for 319 roughly two hours later and staring at a 2-1 series deficit.

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England captain Ben Stokes says he fully backs Joe Root’s decision-making after the batter was dismissed playing the reverse scoop against India.

“I don’t think it was the worst shot in the history of Test cricket, no, certainly not,” Hussain said, adding though that the timing of Root’s decision to play it was the problem, with India a bowler down at the time after Ravichandran Ashwin’s withdrawal mid-Test due to a family emergency.

“There is nothing wrong with the shot, Root plays it as well as anybody, it is the timing of it,” he said. “England had a great opportunity to be ruthless and assess the situation.

“A bowler down, and a great bowler in Ashwin, make Bumrah get to his second or third spell and make them suffer. That was a time to be a little bit smarter.”

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Ben Duckett reacts to criticism of Joe Root’s dismissal when attempting a reverse scoop shot against India.

McCullum, however, doubled down on his team’s positive approach after the game, saying: “That messaging that comes from myself and the skipper will never change regardless of how we’re going. I don’t want our guys to ever doubt themselves, otherwise we go back to where it was beforehand.

“This team is about trying to keep pushing the game forward, to try and entertain and ultimately win. It didn’t work this time around but you can only do that by providing an environment where the guys feel safe and feel they can take on the world.”

As for Root’s form, he added: “Joe will be fine. He just has to keep backing himself and wait for the luck to turn his way.

“The fact he’s missed out in three Tests, does that surely not just mean that he’s closer to getting a big score? It’s Joe Root, crikey. I mean, seriously? The law of averages suggests he’ll fill his boots in the next two Tests.”

Will Stokes bowl in the final two Tests?

As England search for the right balance in their team selection for the final two Tests, one boost to their bowling attack could be a surprise return for Stokes with ball in hand.

Stokes has not bowled in the series so far as he continues to recover from surgery on his left knee late last year, but he told TNT Sports that he “feels great.”

England's captain Ben Stokes (Associated Press)
Image: England captain Ben Stokes has flirted with the prospect of bowling in the final two Tests as he continues his recover from knee surgery

The 32-year-old said after the Rajkot defeat: “I felt like I could have bowled in this game but that would have been stupid. I have a whole body to get used to bowling again.

“As a person I like to jump the gun a little bit but things are feeling really good. It’s not a yes [to bowling in the series] – but it’s not a no either. I have progressed a lot faster than I thought I would.”

Stokes has made a habit of putting in energy-sapping, match-altering bowling spells through his 100-match Test career, carrying the team on his back. And, with England trailing 2-1 in the series with two to play, he may be tempted to pull one out of the bag again.

McCullum admitted, however, that he may have a role to play in reining in his captain.

“Ben is clever,” he said. “He won’t bowl unless he thinks he’s legitimately able to bowl. The problem would be if he starts getting into a spell and then he can’t get out of the spell.

“If he does get that bit between his teeth, let’s see where the danger lies and try and pull him away from it. But it’s good that he’s actually getting into a state where he thinks he might bowl.”

Follow over-by-over text commentary from the fourth Test between India and England, in Ranchi, live on skysports.com and the Sky Sports App from 3.45am on Friday (first ball at 4am).

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