I was wrong. So many of us who have watched this wonderful game for the majority of our lives and believed we understood it were wrong. We believed that “Bazball”, a word that the England team are probably as heartily sick of as most of you, was merely a fad, a hubristic flex destined to fail embarrassingly in the heat of an Ashes battle.
Ah yes, I hear you cry, but England didn’t win the Ashes. With a more traditional approach they might have.
Before the events of the last few days at the Oval I would have agreed with you. I still cringe when I think of the brainless batting in the first innings at Lords or Stokes’ premature declaration at Edgbaston. However, I think I now understand the point of this approach. When Stokes and Brendon McCullum came together 18 months ago and decided how they wanted to play the game there was an acceptance that sometimes it would backfire and England would lose playing cricket that, to those on the outside at least, appeared reckless in the extreme. There was also, however, the steadfast belief that England would win more than they lost playing this way. Without the torrential rain at Old Trafford last week that would have been proven to be true.
Yes, with more common sense and a more conservative approach, England would quite possibly have avoided defeat at Edgbaston and Lords but equally they may not have won at Headingley or The Oval, nor would they have put themselves in the position to complete the crushing victory at Old Trafford that the weather denied them. We will win more than we lose was the motto and as the series has played out it has been broadly justified.
There is of course, as the old saying goes, more than one way to skin a cat. Never was this more true than in the first innings of this memorable Oval Test. England freewheeled their way to 283 off 54.4 overs. Australia responded with a go-slow that would have made Chris Tavere and Geoffrey Boycott seem like an opening partnership in the Hundred by comparison. Marnus Labuschagne scored a tortoise-like 9 off 82 balls, the slowest innings at The Oval since 1956. However, the teams ended up only 12 runs apart on first innings, having taken vastly different journeys to arrive at the same place.
Watching these innings though, made me finally understood the point of Bazball. It pains those of us who hold Test cricket dear to our hearts but the thing we love is dying. Even Australia play to near empty stadiums much of the time, unless England or India are in town.
If every nation takes on the ultra defensive approach exhibited by Pat Cummins’ men in these last two games in particular, then Test cricket will not exist in 20 years. Negative cricket may have worked in previous generations when people had less options for their entertainment and the human race had not lost the precious art of being bored, but, for better or worse we live in a different age now and, as Barack Obama’s aide once remarked, we have to be realistic about “the world as it is”.
In the modern era where the public has the options of endless streaming services, podcasts, YouTube, smartphones and more TV channels than those of us of my generation would have thought possible, this sort of negative cricket will not get people through the gates on a regular basis.
This England team has reached corners of the population that have not shown interest in the game since 2005. Friends and colleagues who have never mentioned cricket to me are now actively discussing the Ashes and the merits of Bazball. Even other nations, such as Pakistan, are attempting to find their own version of England’s attacking approach. One hopes that doing so may bring back the crowds to their stadiums.
Many critics are pointing to the fact that the 2-2 scoreline achieved by Ben Stokes’ team is the same as the one attained under Joe Root and Chris Silverwood back in 2019. The bare statistics may be the same but that is where the comparison ends. In 2019 England were thoroughly outplayed by a vastly superior team, succumbing to two crushing defeats at Edgbaston and Old Trafford and winning one match due to the superhuman efforts of one man after having been bowled out for 67 in their first innings and a second match against complacent tourists who had over celebrated retaining the urn and had, unfathomably, opted to bowl first on a flat track in the final Test.
This time was different. After going 2-0 down at Lords, England battered one of the finest Australian teams of all time into a confused, disoriented mess. To use the vernacular of another former England coach “we flippin’ murdered them”
Stokes’ team did this, admittedly, by adding a dose of common sense to their Bazball approach but, equally, by refusing to back down and sticking steadfastly to what they believed was right, despite almost every cricketing sage in the world telling them they were wrong. “If you can keep your head while all around you are losing theirs” and all that.
There are caveats, of course. England’s players could do with being slightly less self-important about their approach to the game. The “we’re saving Test cricket” spiel can grate slightly even if is broadly true as can the soundbites about “being in the entertainment business” and “winning and losing doesn’t matter”. The latter statement is obviously disingenuous though, a clever attempt from Stokes and McCullum to take the pressure off the players and free them up to play the sort of cricket that they want them to play without fear of failure. Admittedly, after defeats it has not always come across that way to the cricket watching public.
What is clear, however, is how much the players are enjoying their cricket and how much the fans love watching them. After taking the final wicket with the last ball of his Test career, Stuart Broad spoke of feeling “pure joy and happiness” playing for this team and isn’t that what we all want? After all, that’s why we play this game in the first place, because we enjoy it. I first picked up a bat and ball because it made me happy and gave me a joy that few other things in this confusing world could give. Isn’t it wonderful to see an international team throw off the pressures of top level professional sport with its armies of coaches, analysts and, worst of all, Twitter experts, to play with that same joy we all played with in the garden as kids?
Ben Stokes’ team have given us a truly remarkable summer. Now for the final frontier in India