The Ashes: England’s 'Bazball' approach not going anywhere soon

The ‘Bazball,’ has been broadly defined as a game plan whose pillars rest on faster scoring rates, aggressive field placements and bowling changes

Playing without fear: Ben Stokes (left) and Brendon McCullum (photo courtesy @cricketcomau/Twitter)
Playing without fear: Ben Stokes (left) and Brendon McCullum (photo courtesy @cricketcomau/Twitter)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

When Andrew Miller, a well-known UK-based cricket writer, coined the term Bazball last year after Brendon McCullum took over as England’s red ball coach, he surely didn’t see this coming. Today, it’s easily the most trending word in cricket’s ecosystem — may be a trolled one if you are an England fan — as Australia pulled off a heist in the first Ashes Test on Tuesday night.  

The knives are out for Ben Stokes and McCullum, famously nicknamed ‘Baz’ by his teammates, for their declaration on Day I with the question doing the rounds if the new England approach needs to be tempered with a bit more caution. If  Stokes’ media conference after the two-wicket loss at Birmingham is any indication, then not much will change when the second Test starts at the Lord’s on June 28.   

“It was the big question before coming into the series about whether we could continue our style of play against such a good Australia team and even though we’re on the wrong end of the result here, it proves that we literally went toe-to-toe throughout the whole game here,’’ said Stokes, a firm believer in the roadmap laid by McCullum and Robert Key, the new director of men’s cricket, about their approach in Tests.

Point taken, as the Edgbaston Test was a brilliant template for Test cricket to survive in these trying times. If Stokes could have held on to that chance from Nathan Lyon during the critical partnership with Pat Cummins, it could have been a different story and the Bazballers would have been hailed at home.

History says that no team has been able to bounce back in The Ashes after losing the first Test since England in 2005, but it’s unlikely that this current lot will be deterred by such baggage. A throwback into the circumstances, which forced the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) into going for a complete shake-up of their red ball cricket system, reflects that much thinking has gone behind it and the odd reverse may not change their philosophy.

The situation was somewhat akin to their transformation in white ball cricket when after their league stage exit from the 50-overs World Cup in 2015, Andrew Strauss — then in Key’s role — drew up a blueprint with then-skipper Eoin Morgan to go for the kill. The results started showing and four years down the line, England eventually ended their drought of a World Cup in that format and capped it with their second World T20 crown last year.

When McCullum, whose cricketing philosophy was all too well known, was named as a surprise pick along with Stokes as the new captain — England had one win to show in the preceding 17 Tests. Under the new regime, they have now won 11 out of 14 matches, which included rivals like India, New Zealand, South Africa and Pakistan.

The ‘Bazball,’ has been broadly defined as a game plan whose pillars rest on faster scoring rates, aggressive field placements and bowling changes and most importantly — taking the draw out of the equation. However, a look at Joe Root’s recovery act at Edgbaston showed there was a method in the madness — he first anchored the innings past the early crisis and opened up with two huge sixes only on reaching his century.

The ‘Brumbrella’ field placement by Stokes on the third day to apply pressure on centurion Usman Khawaja was yet another example of thinking out-of-the-box: no slips but a cordon to close in fielders on either side to challenge the batter’s concentration levels. It did pay soon enough.

During an interview with The Times recently, new boss Key felt that the word Bazball to qualify England’s new style of play somewhat devalues the role played by the Stokes-McCullum combination so far. ‘’We've now got a clear way of playing, which makes selection easier, too. It's not about scoring at six an over all the time, but players need to have the ability to both soak up pressure and put bowlers under pressure as well,’’ the former England opener added.

 The bottomline line is that both the coach and captain enjoy a clear mandate from the top management. And it’s unlikely that a narrow defeat in a contest, where there was so little to choose between the two teams, is going to change all that!

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