After England’s first test match of a long, challenging winter, Alastair Cook’s men have come out on top, just. Their hosts, Bangladesh, finished just 22 short of England’s total, as they sought a first ever test match victory against the tourists. Ben Stokes picked up the man of the match award, after he picked up 6 wickets and scored 105 runs across the five days.
Well, where to begin? The logical place to start would probably be Ben Stokes, if only to add some context to his otherwise good match figures. 6 wickets and just over 100 runs normally represents, over two innings, a good effort. Often, though, it wouldn’t be enough to earn a player the man of the match award. As is so often the case with Durham’s fiery all-rounder, however, the numbers do not quite speak for themselves. After falling for just 18 in the first innings, Stokes turned the game on its head with the ball in his hand. When play ended on the second day, Bangladesh were in a commanding position. Just over fifty behind England, they still had four wickets intact, and could have built themselves a substantial lead. Enter Stokes, who took three of the hosts’ remaining four wickets, earning his side a lead of 55. Considering that Bangladesh came within 22 of England, that lead proved to be absolutely crucial. Add to his four first-innings wickets the fact that he took the last two of the game, and you have yourself some context to his wickets. All of them were crucial, and all of them came at a time when the game could have gone either way.
Stokes’ runs were arguably just as important. While he failed in the first innings, his 85 in the second gave England the lead they so desperately needed. For a player who thrives on quicker, flatter pitches, this innings was one of real maturity and intelligence. The all-rounder realised that he couldn’t play at his usual pace to begin with, and gave himself plenty of time to adjust to conditions. Considering this was one of Stokes’ first test matches on the subcontinent, the speed with which he adapted was staggering. If he can continue to make such improvements throughout his career, then he has the potential to be one of England’s best ever all-rounders.
Apart from Stokes, most of the England players will feel that there is room for improvement. The three spinners, Ali, Rashid, and Batty, all bowled a little short in the first innings, and were saved somewhat by the reverse-swing and brilliance of Stokes. Looking ahead to the next game, and to November’s India series, they are going to have to be more consistent, or they will be punished. Ali and Rashid complement each other very well. They bowl at very different speeds, and both turn the ball different ways. Thus, they have the potential to work very well together in favourable conditions. They also, however, both tend to serve up “pies” with much more frequency than is desirable.
England’s batting also needs work, and fast. Cook and Root both had quiet games, but they will score runs this winter, and many of them. Cook was unlucky in the first innings, while Root looked as fluent as he ever does, before falling to a couple of soft dismissals. It is at number 2 and 4 that the real concern lies. Ben Duckett did not make a score on his debut, but he should certainly remain in England’s test side this winter. He should, however, replace Gary Ballance at number four, allowing Haseeb Hameed to open up with Alastair Cook. Not only has Ballance looked out of place in England’s middle order for at least 18 months, but Duckett’s style and natural aggression means he is better suited at batting in the middle order in spin-friendly conditions. He might find it a little easier to attack the spinners when the ball isn’t brand new. Hameed, meanwhile, would hopefully be an effective wall at the top of England’s order. He could take the shine out of the new ball, allowing the team’s more natural strokemakers to express themselves further down. England have given Ballance enough chances. There’s no time for any more.
Looking ahead to Friday’s test, the only compulsory change is bringing Hameed in for Ballance, and shifting Duckett down. Other than that, Ansari could be given a go in place of Gareth Batty, if only to ensure that all four of the squad’s spinners have had some match practice ahead of the India tour.
That said, Bangladesh will definitely fancy they can level the series. Mehedi was superb on debut, and will trouble the England batsmen again. Shakib, meanwhile, is a very dangerous cricketer, especially on the subcontinent. Tamim Iqbal reminded England what he is capable of after hitting 78 in his first knock of the tour, while Sabbir brought his side agonisingly close in the fourth innings.
Make no mistake, England have improvements to make. Stokes will not always be able to bail his team out, and will undoubtedly have quiet games. In that case, it will be down to someone else to turn the game around and, on the evidence of last Thursday’s game, the identity of that player is currently rather unclear.