The criticism was quick and expected, but England should stay within a strategy that has allowed them to unleash greatness from the start.
The Controversial Rise of Bazball: The England Unconventional Tactic
The Daily Star called it “a real kick in the Bazballs” Only somewhat less of a cliffhanger than their one-run loss in Wellington in February, England’s second loss in three Test matches was a fall into the abyss.
Ben Stokes‘ team had thanked New Zealand at the Basin Reserve four months prior. Still, the mutually appreciative disbelief on their faces at Edgbaston’s post-match presentation was in sharp contrast to that. James Anderson, one of the most sourpuss opponents, even ventured to smile on that particular occasion after being Neil Wagner’s fourth and last victim of a tireless, deck-hitting fourth-inning performance.
And who knows, maybe Wagner served as the motivation for Stokes’ dubious but obvious tactics to Australia’s detriment on Tuesday night, when he abandoned all pretence of traditional new-ball pressure on a slow surface and provoked Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon into an error that never materialised.
The last hour felt like a turning point in the Bazball story because it was the first time in 15 games that England’s brilliantly brave captain, Stokes, had to blink first when the stakes were highest. Thus, only a day after Stuart Broad declared that his squad was not “results-driven in any way, shape, or form,” Stokes was forced to concede that the events of that decisive day had “beaten up emotionally” him.
Australia, the current World Test Champions, are on their way to Lord’s to face their opponents. It may create doubt and confusion for the players considering their strategies. Each player needs to make choices based on their strengths and weaknesses. Regardless of the outcome, it’s essential to stay true to oneself.
It’s time to have a challenging conversation about Bazball. England needs to stop the frivolous narrative that has spread since their loss and be honest about the origins of the tactics if they want to survive the Ashes rivalry. This honesty is necessary to avoid the barrage of criticism that comes with the territory.
Because until they succeed in doing so, there will be plenty of ridicule. Geoffrey Boycott in The Telegraph observed that “England have gotten carried away with Bazball and seem to think entertaining is more important than winning,” while George Dobell, a previous resident of this parish, noted in The Cricketer that this was “not the primary school egg and spoon.” The Ashes are here.
Even the always-biting Nasser Hussain pointed out that England had not lost an at-home Ashes series since 2001 by playing “the old-fashioned way” and that they “didn’t need ‘Bazball’ to beat Australia” in a Sky Sports interview shortly after the result. You cannot evade detection by claiming to desire to amuse.
Although that was quite literally the second question asked to Eoin Morgan as he sat on his plinth at Lord’s with the trophy gleaming beside him, Bazball is not just a happy-clappy way to “inspire a generation,” as per the ECB’s tagline. Similarly, England’s World Cup victory in 2019 was not intended to “boost participation levels.”
The fact that it did was a welcome by-product of that achievement. Similarly, the ECB owes Stokes’ men a different debt of gratitude for playing in a style that has filled the stadiums and even attracted a Sky Sports record 2.1 million viewers for Edgbaston’s historic day five. And it’s encouraging to know that the players are socially conscious, especially at this precarious time for English cricket when, with the upcoming release of Cricket’s Independent Commission for Equity (ICEC) review, the sport feels perpetually just one press release away from being thrown back into crisis.
But England must now draw a line under the proselytising and the mission creep and shift the focus back onto the madness at the core of their method for the sake of the players’ credibility and that of a tactic that – privately, at least – will have earned more respect within the Australia dressing-room than they’ll ever need to declare in public.
Because everyone enjoys a good origin tale, Bazball’s could rival Batman’s if adequately told. Take a minute to put aside the constant laughing and the image of Harry Brook bowling gobblers on the second morning of an Ashes series. Brendon McCullum accidentally discovered Bazball as a cold-blooded self-preservation strategy in the middle of tragedy eight years ago, so he has expressed such an active dislike for the name. If he embraces it, it can bring up a period in his life that he’d much prefer to forget.
In November 2014, New Zealand was playing Pakistan in a Test match in Sharjah when word of Phillip Hughes’ untimely death during a Sheffield Shield match in Sydney reached the team. The players lost interest in the current game, but the show must go on, so McCullum strolled out to bat with his mind clear of any worries and hit 202 from 188 balls.
His opponent, One of the players mentioned, is Stokes, who achieved a century in just 85 balls during the 2015 Lord’s Test against New Zealand. It remains the quickest century ever scored at the historic venue. He picked up on his unthinking attitude when he passed it on to his team during a notoriously rampant autumn of his career.
In addition, Stokes himself was emerging from his well-documented mental turmoil, which included the impending death of his father from brain cancer in December 2020, the existential futility of continuing to play through Covid bio-bubbles, and the fears for his career after a poorly played match. So, their alchemy was instant when the opportunity arose seven years later for the pair to work together as captains and coaches.
The squad’s total buy-in throughout the last 12 months has served as an expression of the squad’s delight, which has been the joy of release and the unwavering conviction that there is nothing more significant than being carefree.
The point is that Bazball’s backstory (as Stokes and McCullum obviously won’t be calling it just yet) is as genuine and depressing as the dominant narrative makes it out to be manufactured and unimportant. Still, the resulting tactic has already been demonstrated to be the most effective way for this group of players to reach their potential. The squad is now set up to unleash brilliance from the get-go instead of constantly needing miracles to save them, such as Stokes’ Headingley opus in 2019 or Root’s annus mirabilis in 2021. furthermore, even while Stokes is correct to say that “losing sucks,” it is still OK to be apprehensive about losing.
However, it was noteworthy how brief McCullum intended to keep his interview with the media following England’s defeat at Edgbaston. While he reiterated his steadfast belief that the team’s current ethos is the best way to win, he skimmed through the personnel concerns facing the team ahead of Lord’s, from Moeen Ali’s finger to Jonny Bairstow’s glovework, and his punchline was to digress into how amused everyone had been this week once more.
He is ideally within his rights to continue being implacable as he reclines on the balcony with his feet up and yawns while the scene unfolds in front of him. But just as his similarly laid-back predecessor, Trevor Bayliss, was famously compared (by our friend George again) to a yucca plant and whale music for his focus on creating an excellent dressing-room ambience, so you suspect that McCullum will have to earn his corn this week – probably on a golf course somewhere remote. At the same time, England’s women fill the Ashes void during an essential week of regrouping.
In the semi-final of the World Cup, against Australia at Edgbaston no less, Bayliss’ most infamous intervention as head coach was to halt England’s victory celebrations with a brief but stern warning that they had not yet won anything and that if they continued in this manner, they would also lose the tournament.
You suspect that McCullum’s involvement will be more understated and laid back, but it must still be direct. He might want to tell his charges that if they think this is awful, they should consider what actual gloom is like.
Bio-bubbles are genuine gloom, and the last Ashes tour’s emptiness was pure gloom. The treadmill existence that was endured during Covid, endlessly playing the same game with no adulation other than the dressing-room cheers that, to this day, remain England’s most crucial support structure – both despite, and more importantly because of, the very fervour their antics have whipped up, is what true bleakness is, not a narrow loss in front of a crowd in utter thrall of the spectacle you are putting on.
Touchingly, the man who would have liked Bazball the most out of all the onlookers would have undoubtedly given the last word on its practicality.
The late great Shane Warne used to talk about the need to project a table image to make sure that, as often as possible, you were playing the man, not the cards, as the action unfolded in front of you when he turned to poker in the latter years of his tragically all-too-short life to replicate the competitive thrill that had powered his mighty Test career.
In terms of traditional athletic strategy, it needs to be more counterintuitive. Still, poker is created to get around the whims of chance that will undoubtedly wipe out your stack occasionally. You’ll certainly come out ahead if you keep making the proper decisions and playing against the appropriate opponents in a way consistent with the hand you represent.
Because only in such circumstances could Root, for example, correctly predict that Pat Cummins’ initial move on Day Four of an Ashes series would be to hit that channel outside off, a preemptive reverse-ramp is a perfectly rational and appropriate course of action. The only captain who could have declared at 393 for 8 after 78 overs on the first day of the series and intended to demoralise his opponents entirely understands the nihilism that lies at the heart of Bazball.
It was unsuccessful in this instance. It’s different from being the incorrect choice, though. Stokes has no choice but to reinvest and try again for the sake of the remainder of an already thinly stacked series. Warnie would be pleased, for one.
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