Bazball: Is the uncanny English strategy to Test cricket really as effective as it initially seemed?
England’s Test cricket side has identified a strategy to turn around their dwindling fortunes in the format, but is it really as brilliant as it seemed? Or is it even better?
The English men’s Test side has for long been one of the pioneers of international cricket. Having contested the first ever Test match in history against Australia back in 1877, the history of the team goes back a long, long way.
Over the last 140-odd years, the storied side has been graced with era-defining batters, bowlers, and captains, more than a few of whom have left behind a superlative legacy. From Douglas Jardine, Wally Hammond, and Ted Dexter to Michael Vaughan, Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook, captaining the English Test side is not an honour that’s bestowed upon everyone. Only the most prodigiously gifted and unwavering leaders are chosen for the job, which is a humbling distinction to receive, but also a precarious position to be in.
The job requires instant results. And results mean victory. Which is precisely what the England side had been failing to achieve for quite a while under Joseph Edward Root, one of England’s greatest ever batters, as well as their longest serving Test captain, with 64 matches at the helm. Things began to slide into a slump when England toured India in 2021 for a 4-Test series. The visitors lost 1–3, despite a resounding victory in the first Test. This was followed by defeat in England itself at the hands of New Zealand (1–0), then an Ashes hammering in Australia (4–0), and finally a shock loss in the West Indies (1–0). England’s figures in that period read 1 victory in 14 matches, with 9 losses.
Things had to change, and they had to change quickly. A total reorganisation of the leadership personnel followed. Former New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum was appointed head coach, gun all-rounder Ben Stokes was appointed captain, former England batter Rob Key was appointed managing director, and ‘Bazball’ was appointed as England’s saviour out of rough waters.
The strategy, which encourages quick scoring and aggressive strokeplay, deviated greatly from what the essence of Test match cricket was. Patience, poise and class was replaced by belligerence, unorthodoxy and power. Before the cricketing world could even comprehend what England was doing, they’d already battered New Zealand 3–0 in their first assignment under the McCullum-Stokes duo. England successively chased down fourth innings targets of 277, 299 and 296 in 79, 50 and 54 overs respectively. This was followed by a record chase of 378/3 against India as Jonny Bairstow and Root ripped the bowling to shreds.
Success against Pakistan, South Africa and New Zealand (an away series draw) followed. Bowling attacks were being walloped to all corners as England’s reinvigorated batting left everyone flabbergasted and stupefied. A batsman as technically sound as Joe Root resorted to playing reverse scoops off the pacers to keep the intensity up. In a Test match. Scoring at 4–5 runs per over. It was carnage, and the carnage was working. Stokes and McCullum had brought back the golden days of English cricket, almost on the cusp of immortality. Or so they (and everyone else) felt.
But there was one side they were yet to come up against, their biggest rivals, the all-conquering Australian kangaroos. Cricket’s biggest and oldest rivalry, the mega blockbuster ‘Ashes’ were just around the corner, and Bazball was ready.
But what Bazball failed to realise was that the Aussies were fearless, ruthless and unfazed.
While England continued their brand of cricket in the first Test at Edgbaston, declaring boldly on the very first day at 393/8, Australia responded with typical Test match batting led by Usman Khawaja’s delightful, gruelling and exhausting 141 (321). The match went down to the final moments of Day 5. The result? Australia won by 2 wickets, excelling in their very first assignment against the new England side. Stokes’ first innings declaration came under extreme criticism from former English players and pundits, who up until then had been showering England’s fearless approach with plaudits and singing songs on its invincibility. One failure in the Ashes was enough to turn admirers into critics. But the team management crossed it off as a rare mishap and moved on.
The next Test however, put the side under serious scrutiny. England were cruising in their first innings at 188–1, in reply to Australia’s 416. Then the inevitable happened, and ego prevailed over common sense. Australia laid a trap by unleashing a barrage of short balls with numerous men patrolling the boundary ropes, knowing England would not shy away from taking on the pull, hook or slash even if it meant almost certain demise. The plan worked, and England collapsed to 222–4 and eventually 325 all out, conceding a healthy lead of 91.
What followed was a cannonade of questions and opprobrium describing England’s approach as impractical and reckless. Many former cricketers including Nasser Hussain and Mike Atherton reiterated the need for playing the situation and not letting pride get bigger than the occasion. England’s eventual loss by 43 runs to fall 0–2 behind in the series just added fuel to the already raging fire.
What works against Bazball is its largely one-dimensional nature and refusal to adapt to difficult situations. England was provided with flat pitches to enable quick run scoring, all but negating their bowling strength and also allowing Australia to bat time.
Quick run scoring also meant that England’s batting lasted shorter than usual, not allowing their bowlers to rest and regain adequate energy to grind it out against the patient Aussie batsmen, who played on this very weakness to try and tire the pacers further. James Anderson classified the Edgbaston pitch as ‘kryptonite’ for bowlers of his sort, indicating clearly that Bazball only alluded to the success of the batting unit, not the bowling. Ben Duckett, England’s opener, hardly leaves deliveries even if they’re bowled at a 6th-7th stump line. A cardinal sin in Test cricket. But as long as it works, no one bats an eye.
The batting also displays shades of confusion and incertitude at several points when the field is spread out and testing lines and lengths are bowled (Stokes ultimately had to play sensible Test cricket in order to stall the hara-kiri the English batters caused in their insistence to go after the short ball in the second Test). Situational awareness stoops to a minimum and a strong sense of ‘my way or the highway’ seems to be followed with regards to aggressive batting, often resulting in England being their own worst enemy.
England captain Geoff Boycott made a brutal, scathing remark as he asked the team to ‘be a professional circus’ if all they were looking for was to entertain and not win. Bazball’s initial pathbreaking manner and style took everyone by surprise, and those who came up against it immediately had no chance to adapt or devise a counterplan. Australia however, silently observed the Pommies for a little over a year, and arrived in England ready to bury Bazball into the ground in their own backyard.
The batters in this era, due to T20 cricket, are no doubt a lot more intrepid as compared to the 80s, 90s, or 2000s players, but for England to translate that audaciousness into Test cricket was unforeseen. And it was unforeseen because it was impractical. It was impractical because it was unnecessary. But England needed victories, and that impracticality worked in their favour, until it didn’t. And it didn’t in the Ashes of all places. The one place it should have been guaranteed to work.
But what Stokes and McCullum have made clear is that they are not going to let a few odd losses dampen their spirits. Bazball is a craft that requires continuous honing, and the two chief craftsmen at the helm of English cricket, along with Key, are surely going to invest all their time into turning it into a weapon of mass destruction. England would hope this practice pays dividends and turns Bazball into a rapid Formula One car racing through its competitors, while Australia and the rest of the world would be hustling extensively to develop a needle that could puncture its tyres, stopping it dead in its tracks.