Photo courtesy of Matthew Cleeve @matthewcleeve on X

Everything is Bazball and nothing is Bazball. We are now so deep inside the matrix that it is hard to tell what is real anymore. Some sages on the site formerly known as Twitter tried to claim that Joe Root’s epic innings of 122 not out off 274 balls was actually a Bazball innings because Bazball is about doing whatever is right in that moment. Funny, we used to just call that good cricket.

England lost the Test series in India this morning and there is no shame in that. They went down valiantly and only one England team this century, that of Alistair Cook in 2012/13 has won a series there. The Australians have failed to win there since 2004. England came to India with three spinners who had played a grand total of two Tests between them, apart from Jack Leach who was injured and flew home after the first Test. Despite this they have stayed in the game in all but one match, the fiasco of Rajkot, and have gone into the last innings in each game with a serious chance of winning. They have faired so much better than many other England teams who have gone to India and tried to play a more traditional form of cricket. Yet there is still the nagging feeling that perhaps this time India were there for the taking. Virat Kohli is missing, KL Rahul too for the last two games and Mohammed Shami is injured. The home side have shown vulnerabilities on their own turf that Indian teams don’t usually exhibit. Perhaps they are still scarred by the failure to win the World Cup that they seemed pre-ordained to capture last year. Either way it is hard to see an England team having a better chance of winning a series in India than this one. The suspicion remains that England have thrown away that chance through reckless abandon. A target of 399 in Vizag seemed insurmountable but the tourists were actually in a good position to chase it down. Ollie Pope played a frenetic innings where he seemed incapable of playing a defensive shot, Joe Root slogged one up in the air and Ben Stokes was carelessly run out. Even despite this they only fell 106 short. Even the 434 run defeat in Rajkot had a moment that England let slip when, well placed on 207-2 overnight and with India’s premier spinner Ravi Ashwin unavailable, Joe Root decided to play the reverse scoop that has now gone down in cricketing infamy and England’s batting folded like a pack of cards.

The same old accusations were levelled at the team in the aftermath, they don’t know how to play the situation, they let the opposition back into the game. The comparisons to the collapse at Lords after Nathon Lyon’s injury in the Ashes were inevitable. The brilliance of the comeback win in Hyderabad was forgotten amidst a hail of criticism from many who seem to be almost waiting for this team to fail so they can pronounce this brave new world a failure. After all, you are not supposed to be able to reinvent the wheel.

Let me pose a scenario, however. Consider England’s second innings collapse here in Ranchi this weekend that surely cost them the chance of a series levelling victory. Imagine if England had collapsed to 145 all out, losing 7 wickets for 35 runs in a hail of reverse scoops and boundary catches. The doyens of the broadsheet media and the experts on X would have had their greatest field day yet. Stokes and McCullum’s team would have been denounced as reckless chancers who had thrown the series away. Except, that didn’t happen. England suffered their collapse yesterday not by going down swinging but through that tried and tested English method abroad of propping forward and waiting for the grimly inevitable. Indeed, one could argue that this was the first match of the new era where England completely abandoned their attacking mantra and tried to play traditional Test cricket and guess what, they weren’t good enough to do it. Poor defensive techniques from the likes of Ben Duckett and Ollie Pope were hopelessly exposed. Events in Ranchi in the last few days have not only proved the need for Bazball but also revealed the principal reason for its’ existence which is that England simply do not have batsmen who can win Test matches in any other way.

Stokes and McCullum may believe in a fearless brand of cricket but they are also pragmatists. They know that they have a group of players that simply do not possess sound defensive techniques but, if allowed to play with complete freedom, have the attacking game to win Test matches. They watched Joe Root and Chris Silverwood try to force a traditional method of building an innings, waiting for the bad ball and playing steadily on these players and it was an unmitigated, dismal failure, one that Ben Stokes had a front row seat to, and they decided it was not for them. Instead, they devised a method that played to the attacking strengths of their batsmen, honed in T20 cricket. It may not always come off and sometimes it might look very ugly but it will always be entertaining and they will, hopefully, win more than they lose. If it succeeds it looks brilliant and if it fails then they can still claim to be entertaining the public and saving Test cricket in the process. To quote Derek Trotter, everyone’s a winner.

Where this method falls down, however, is when England’s players become carried away with the idea itself. Most of Stokes and McCullum’s greatest successes have come from what I would call “Bazball with brains,” a measured attacking approach where the positive option is still taken without fear of failure but the team is able to read the match situation and adapt accordingly, rather than playing in the same gear all the time. One only has to look at the second half of last summer’s Ashes series and the Hyderabad Test itself to see this. When England’s players get carried away with their own brilliance they embarrass themselves off the pitch as much as on it. Ollie Robinson is never short of a soundbite but his recent quotes, sandwiched between England’s second and third Test defeat that “results are irrelevant to this team” have been hard to swallow, particularly from a man who, at the time, had not bowled a ball in Test cricket since halfway through the 3rd Ashes Test last summer, a series where he admitted afterwards that he “didn’t leave it all out there”.  If Robinson is prone to self promotion, Ben Duckett’s post match interviews are becoming almost David Brentian. To claim, as Duckett did in Rajkot, that England should claim “some credit” for Yashaswi Jaiswal’s sublime double hundred, as Bazball had shown him the way, was as insulting as it was absurd. It is as if no one in India had ever seen a six being hit until the great Englishmen turned up at their cricket grounds and showed them the way. To think, before Bazball India had to make do with plodders such as Virender Sehwag and MS Dhoni to entertain them.

Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum seem to be humble, respectful men. It is hard to imagine that they talk this way in the dressing room. If not, then perhaps they need to reign in some of their players’ more hubristic public statements. This England team is doing a lot of good for Test cricket across the world but some of that work will be undone if the side comes across as arrogant and entitled, something which I do not believe they are. In the main, this is a decent and likeable group of players and they need to ensure that this is the image they project.

Bazball as a method works overall, that much is borne out by the results of the last two years compared to the time that preceded it. Perhaps it needs to be toned down a bit, both on and off the pitch, but it should not be abandoned. Removing the fear of failure from an international sports team in this modern, over-professionalised era is a remarkable achievement. Players such as Zak Crawley and now Shoaib Bashir have flourished in this environment. Mark Ramprakash was one to criticise England’s attitude this week, but one wonders how players like him and Graeme Hick would have fared in their England careers without the crushing fear of failure and the selectors axe.

Those of us who have followed the game for years might yearn for something a little slower of pace, a little more traditional but, thanks to the failings of the ECB, the county game does not produce many players able to play that way anymore. It is hard to see another Alistair Cook coming through the system in the near future. One has to admit that this method is entertaining as well. I have felt more enthusiasm following the England cricket team in the last two years than I can remember since my youth. Maybe it will bring in a new generation of fans that will cherish the long form of the game as well, we can but hope.
The other day my 4 year old son turned to me and said, “I don’t understand cricket but I understand Bazball”. Perhaps, after all, that is the point.

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