FOR decades, English cricket has been defined by its defensiveness. Yes, we’ve had our share of cavaliers — Botham, Gower, and Flintoff — but the truer English cricketer was the roundhead — Boycott, Barrington, and Cook — selling his wicket dearly, grinding out runs, and not giving an inch.
And yet all this has changed thanks to “Bazball”, the revolutionary philosophy that arrived in English Test cricket one year ago, and which has changed the nature of this year’s Ashes contest.
For the uninitiated, Bazball is a term derived from Baz, the nickname of England’s new coach, Brendon McCullum. Together with the equally new captain, Ben Stokes, they have transformed the manner in which England play the game.
The key mantra of the McCullum-Stokes method “Bazball” is to play Test cricket as though losing doesn’t matter very much. This may seem obvious to people whose emotional well-being is not dictated by their attachment to a sporting team, but, in Test cricket, it’s a revolution. Test cricket had always been seen as a serious business; in particular, while batting, you shouldn’t take unnecessary risks.
The problem was, England’s cricketers had become so consumed by the fear of failure that they were losing. Not only were they losing on the cricket field — England had posted just one victory in their previous 17 matches — they were losing in the sense that the players were all feeling miserable in the process; they had forgotten that even Test cricket was ultimately a game, and it ought to be fun to play.
Stokes and McCullum posed a new question: “What if you just don’t mind about losing, so long as you are playing your own style? What if no one criticises you for getting out while playing an attacking shot?”
ONE year on, and the world is seeing the results.
On the pitch, England’s fortunes have improved significantly. Crucially, the whole approach has led to a long overdue recalibration of risk. For example, in the old days, chasing 250 runs in the fourth innings was rather like climbing Everest without oxygen: for sure, it could be done, but only very rarely, when the opposition’s best bowler was carrying an injury and when Mars was aligned with Venus: between 1898 and 2019, England managed it on only 11 occasions.
This was because, in general, faced with totals that high on pitches made uneven by the previous days of play, attacking was seen as far too risky: the best thing would be to defend for your lives. Hence, the opposition bowling would be confronted by some dogged English defence; we might not actually win, but, it was hoped, we would not lose, either: we could rescue a draw from a losing position, and this was respectable. It was frequently dull to watch, but it carried the English virtue of minimising risk, and labouring hard, without seeking any reward save that of knowing that we might get a draw.
Stokes and McCullum have simply declined to play for draws. Even if the target is high, their team will have a crack. The result? In the past 12 months alone, England, on five occasions, have chased down targets of 250 or more, something that would normally take 50 years to achieve.
Similarly, in their style of play, they have freed up their batters to innovate with their stroke-making. Even the classically minded Joe Root has started playing the reverse ramp, a shot so insane that it had barely been conceived of, let alone played, in Test cricket ever before.
And, as they push the limits of the possible, this England side are uncovering new truths. Root’s reverse ramp, which at first looked ludicrously dangerous, begins to seem like an effective, even sensible shot.
It doesn’t all work out, of course. But when they err, they err on the side of adventure; and, after decades of attrition, that’s utterly refreshing.
TO THE hardened watcher of Test cricket, this is also very confusing. It’s like being an early 20th-century art lover, expecting to see a realist portrait but being confronted by a Cubist work by Picasso.
We simply don’t know what “good” cricket looks like any more; we don’t know how it “should” be played. It’s a cricket laboratory, in which England are exploring the art of the possible, and doing it in the Ashes, the biggest stage of all.
Just a year ago, people thought that Test cricket was dying. How could the long form survive against its more glamorous little brother, T20? Now, the cricket that everyone really wants to see is this England team playing Test matches. It’s still Test cricket, with all its extended tension and shifts of momentum, but it’s also new.
For the Church, one lesson of the Bazball revolution is that, as we think about fresh expressions, perhaps we should be thinking less about new formats, but more about fresh mind-sets. Counter-intuitive as it is, what we already have may contain possibilities we haven’t even begun to uncover.
Stokes’s England are still playing Test cricket; it’s the same game, but at the same time it is a revolution. And it’s glorious.
The Revd Robert Stanier is Vicar of St Andrew and St Mark, Surbiton, in the diocese of Southwark, and a former winner of the 2018 Wisden Writing Competition (Comment, 18 May 2018).
Listen to Fr Stanier reflect on the themes of the article on the Church Times podcast.