18/04/2024

Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum have been an integral part in the implementation of Bazball. (Photo: England Cricket/Facebook)

Declarations on day one, switch hits off the first ball of the day, and fields you would see in a backyard cricket match. This is what Bazball is all about.

If you paid any attention to the first Ashes Test in Edgbaston, Bazball was the buzzword used by every commentator. While the concept of Bazball might not be in every person’s word bank, it has been seen before.

Since former New Zealand wicketkeeper, Brendon McCullum took over as England coach in May 2022, England has attacked the game more profusely.

The concept directly reflects the playing style of its namesake, a man who made the fastest test century in his final Test match. McCullum finished with a Test strike rate of 64.6, a number that ranks amongst the best of all time.

When the former Kiwi captain was awarded the Three Lions’ top job, he faced the tough task of finding their identity once again.

In the 12 months prior to his appointment (between June 2021 and May 2022), the Poms went 1-8 in 14 Test matches, which included a 4-0 whitewash in the 2021/22 Ashes.

This shameful period is highlighted by their woeful batting performances, most notably being bowled out for 68 against the Aussies during the Boxing Day Test (also known as the Scott Boland game).

If we look closely at the areas of concern for England during that period, they were unable to score efficiently and couldn’t sustain a healthy partnership, which would result in a dearth of runs.

Hence that abysmal season was their worst on record since the corresponding period between 1987 and 1988, where they went winless from their 11 Test matches (nine were draws).

During the final stages of Chris Silverwood’s tenure and the duration of Paul Collingwood’s interim coaching stint, there was no proactiveness to score efficiently.

Boasting a run rate of 2.95 runs per over during that time, the English players were profusely on the back foot. Of the 26 players that represented England at Test level during its lull, 15 averaged a strike rate lower than their career strike rate. Eight of those were struck at least five runs under their career rate at the time.

The team also had trouble sustaining a lengthy partnership. England had the third-lowest average among the team competing in the World Test Championship in those 12 months, averaging 25.6 runs per partnership. Losing 253 wickets doesn’t help either, the largest tally out of the nine teams.

Obviously, the numbers just mentioned are not ideal, but to put into context how significant Bazball has been, England has almost doubled the output in these categories. Their runs per partnership have increased by 15 runs to 40.4 (second in World Test Championship) and are now scoring at 4.95 runs per over which is the greatest rate in Test history during a 12-month period.

McCullum solved this problem by replacing traditionally slower scorers with more aggressive batters who are more inclined to play the shorter formats of the game.

Of the 15 players who were averaging below their career strike rate during the 2021/22 season, six have not played another Test since. Largely due to the impact of two men – Ben Duckett and Harry Brook.

Duckett and Brook exemplify the attacking style of play their coach possessed, both maintaining an average strike rate of over 97 in the first 12 months of McCullum’s tenure.

Those who kept their spot post-exodus have followed suit, as nine of the 13 remaining players had a strike rate of 70 plus in that period.

Those variables, along with the instilled belief captain Ben Stokes has in his side in getting a result, no matter what position they are in.

England has chased down four scores over 250 runs which includes a team-record 378 against India at Edgbaston. The belief helped them to a 10-2 record in McCullum’s first dozen matches as a coach.

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But what is the future of Bazball?

This Ashes series is the litmus test for the longevity and effectiveness of Bazball. Playing against the reigning World Test Champions, this is the ultimate test for its sustainability.

We’ve already seen Bazball in full effect against Australia at Edgbaston.

England looked to have Australia figured out when it made 393 runs in the first 78 overs of the day. Then England bullishly decided to declare, becoming the fifth side on the opening day of a Test match.

It would prove to be a poor decision from Stokes as the Aussies drew first blood in the series. Although the world number one’s required a mammoth 281 runs for victory, England had the game on its terms before the declaration.

Wanting Khawaja and Warner to face the new ball on the dawn of close of play on day one would always prove to be more risky than successful, especially when Joe Root was unbeaten, having just brought up his 30th Test century and wiping the floor with the Australian bowlers.

An extra 60 runs in that innings ultimately wins the game for England and the notion of Bazball being the undisputed strategy of Test cricket is potentially etched into folklore.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom as England has plenty to take away from the first Test.

The Poms were on top for most of the match and it took a gritty performance from Usman Khawaja and the best efforts from Nathan Lyon and Pat Cummins with bat and ball in the second innings to get the Aussies over the line.

We can’t forget that Australia had to successfully chase down their fourth-greatest final innings total in Ashes history to win at Edgbaston, something that they failed at 18 years earlier.

Australia’s victory took an inhumane effort from its tail to abolish what would have been one of the most significant statements a team has made against Australia.

England is capable of defeating its archrivals, creating the best Ashes series since 2005. However, England should know that when playing against Australia, it needs to make the most of its opportunities, otherwise, it will pay the price.

For the host nation to win this series and prove that Bazball can be sustained, they must maintain their mental fortitude. Unlike some of the sides, England has faced since the appointment of McCullum, the Australian side is far from a one-trick pony.

Thus, the Bazball executors need to remain resilient in times like these and not resort to old habits. After all, the concept is around positive reinforcement and continuing to play positively, even when their backs are against the wall.

Bazball has definitely taken the cricketing world by storm over the past year. It has given Test cricket a new sense of life for non-traditionalists.

In patches, England has proven that Bazball can be used to combat the world’s best. Although in order for it to be considered a full-on cheat code, Ben Stokes needs to police it better by not pulling the trigger too soon (as seen in Edgbaston). If executed properly, Bazball’s ceiling could make this England outfit one of the greatest to pull on the whites for the Three Lions.

While there have been no outstanding flaws so far, its floor could display real cracks in its side. An educated guess would be in their bowling line up who is headlined by a 40-year-old Jimmy Anderson. He has already threatened to not play the remainder of the Ashes if the British curators produce more flat pitches for the series. Stuart Broad is also ageing and Ollie Robinson and Moeen Ali have proven that England has minimal bowling depth.

However, the concept has proven effective so far and can continue to do so if executed to the highest of standards.

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