There were a few boos. Not many, but enough to pierce through the polite applause that greeted his bowling warm-ups. It did not take long for them to be drowned out by cheers as his picture was beamed onto the two big screens here at Trent Bridge. Nine overs into the third Test, India steady at 26-0, Ben Stokes was about to come on.
The travails had come and gone to a point. The trial was over, the “not guilty” verdict received with relief. Even with the Cricket Discipline Commission to answer to, the events of that fateful Bristol night are slowly starting to be left back in September 2017. As he took the ball at the Pavilion End, on first-change to replace Stuart Broad, he looked a man far more at home at the top of his mark than in the dock.
As with any athlete who has done wrong, performances go a long way to long-term exoneration. And though he was found “not guilty”, the details that emerged from a week in Bristol Crown Court, along with the video that set off this whole episode, have been enough for some England fans to turn on the once universally lauded allrounder.
Even before he took the ball, there was an extra splash of injustice after Joe Root announced on Friday that Sam Curran would be the one to make way. Those comments were amplified as Stokes, in trying to make an impression on his return, put in the worst shift of the five bowlers on show and, in turn, contributed to England’s worst day of the series so far. Curran was at least saved watching it, scuttling away at lunch to join up with Surrey ahead of their day-night Championship match against Lancashire at the Oval, which starts on Sunday.
An opening nine Stokes overs went wicketless for 45, with the only question asked being how someone could go at an economy rate of five on a pitch so slow. It was unclear from the off what his plan was to India’s top order. Stokes’s pitch map – a graphic showing where all his deliveries landed – had no sense of cunning or consistency and instead looked like someone had put a monkey in front of a fresh canvas and handed it a paintball gun.
Even with Chris Woakes’s interjection to nab the first three wickets in eight overs to stunt India from 60 for none to 82 for three, Stokes’s waywardness meant Adil Rashid had to be introduced after just 39 overs. The leg spinner’s first over went for 10.
At 181 for three, 52 overs clocked, Stokes came back on with a licence to bowl short. The captain set the field – a short leg, leg gully (Root himself), fine leg and deep square leg back on the fence, with Broad lurking at midwicket – and the Durham man was allowed to keep it in his half. It wasn’t a particularly cute tactic but, ahead of the tea break, it made sense. Both trying to catch Virat Kohli napping and play on his ego, even if the India skipper has an impressive record against the short stuff. It never quite came off. India were unscathed as Stokes was unable to summon the spell required. As revealed over the last week, it is not the first time he has had issues with bouncers.
But arguably Stokes’s most destructive moment today came at his own team’s expense when he somehow managed to convince Root to review an LBW decision on Hardik Pandya in the 74th over. A press forward and leave offered a ball from Adil Rashid a whiff of the right-hander’s front pad. Jonny Bairstow was bemused by Stokes original appeal and his confusion was shared by the rest when they and the Trent Bridge crowd watched a strong contender for “worst appeal of the series”.
That was England out of reviews – it was another to add to the list of examples of Root not being strong enough to dismiss the misguided enthusiasm of his senior teammates. Kohli was on the cusp of his second century of the series and the hosts needed everything at their disposal to get rid of him.
Luckily, at the end of the 76th over, there was no need for technology. Instead, a bit of temptation from Rashid and a misguided swipe from Kohli popped up the simplest of first slip catches to Stokes. As Rashid punched the air, the 27-year-old clasped the ball in both hands and brought it to his face in a moment of team and individual solace.
By stumps, a sixth wicket had given the scoreboard a better gleam from a home perspective. But with 307 runs at the end of a day when Root decided bowling first was the way to go, India are well set to post the highest score of this series, on a pitch that is starting to tilt in the seamers’ favour.
England have gone above and beyond to back Stokes over the last 12 months. While others, particularly in the first half of the day, did not pull their weight with the ball and allowed India to get away, the team needs Stokes to return the favour tomorrow. Sport loves a redemption story and there is a sense we might be on the cusp of one here. But as far as opening chapters go, it could not have been tamer.
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