Bazball Will Continue Despite Australia's Victory in the Second Ashes Test
Australian players hug each other to celebrate after their win in the second Ashes Test match against England, at Lord's cricket ground in London, on Sunday, July 2, 2023. Image Courtesy: AP/PTI
It is the second session of the fifth day of the second Ashes test. English tailender Josh Tongue fails to defend a straight ball from Australian pacer Mitchell Starc. With Tongue's wicket, Australia wins the test by 43 runs to take a resounding 2-0 lead in the five-match series.
The action on the last day would surpass events from many international matches. Jonny Bairstow's stumping, Stuart Broad's complaints, a breathtaking inning by England skipper Ben Stokes, Steve Smith dropping Stokes, and finally, Stokes falling to Hazelwood. Like Stokes' heroics in Headingley, Leeds, four years ago, it came down to one English batter against an entire Australian attack.
Unfortunately for Stokes, Australia had learned its lessons. When he targeted the shorter side, Australian bowlers changed their lines, asking Stokes to access the longer side. Runs dried up, and so did Stokes' patience. He tried to hit one by Hazelwood off the park and only managed to edge it. Alex Carey collected the catch, thereby ending England's hopes for a miracle. Australia 2-0 Bazball.
Before Brendon McCullum's appointment as the head coach of the English Test cricket team, England had won just a single match in the previous 17 tests. A few weeks before the appointment, Ben Stokes replaced Joe Root as the captain of the Test team. Together, the pair announced a new way of result-oriented approach to Test cricket called the 'Bazball'.
With Bazball, England defeated the World Test champions New Zealand by 3-0. It was followed by an impressive victory against India at home. With four wins out of four, Bazball was up and running; although they lost their next match at Lord's against South Africa, Stokes' team managed to win the series by 2-1. However, all of these results were achieved at home. Their next test was away from home in Pakistan. England convincingly won the series 3-0.
Stokes and McCullum repeatedly stressed that they play to exclude a draw from the picture- it's either a win or a loss. Batters took a higher run-rate approach, accompanied by some brave declarations in the third inning to force the opposing team to play for a win. Even when they lost, England managed to create entertainment. The same 'entertainment' word was often used when Australia defeated England in the first test of the ongoing Ashes series.
Contrary to England, under Pat Cummins's leadership, Australia primarily played pragmatic cricket. Cummins was appointed as the Test team captain following a text scandal involving ex-captain Tim Paine. He couldn't have started any better as his team beat England by 4-0 in Ashes 2021/22. The Ashes victory was followed by a 1-0 away series victory in Pakistan and a 1-1 series in Sri Lanka.
After some convincing home series wins, Australia lost the Border-Gavaskar trophy against India in an away series by 2-1. However, Australia had the last laugh when the two sides met in the final of the World Test Championship in June 2023.
At its core, Bazball is incredibly innovative; it isn't just reflected in Jak Crawley's first ball boundary off Cummins to start the Ashes. While batters have taken a major share of the limelight, Bazball has been more about captaincy and coaching, a breath of fresh air to save dying English cricket. It is best reflected in England's ability to chase big targets in the fourth inning of a match. England did so against New Zealand and India at home; in an earlier era, those big chases would have meant a sure defeat.
In other instances, the decision to send a nighthawk instead of a nightwatchman (a tailender who comes to bat at the end of the day to block some overs) meant that aggressiveness remained the primary mantra.
Even in the ongoing Ashes, there have been brave and innovative calls. Stokes declared before the end of the day's play on the first day of the first Test. Australia's victory put a needlessly harsh spotlight on the declaration. However, if England hadn't played for a win in batting-friendly conditions, it would have meant another dull draw, something that test cricket can really do without. When Khawaja batted effortlessly in Australia's first inning, Stokes put a strange umbrella to draw the batter into a mistake; it paid off. Similarly, Australian tailenders were met with a barrage of short bowling.
In the second Australian inning of the second Test, as Steve Smith and Khawaja were threatening to run away with the match, England again used short bowling; both fell too short balls and so did the rest of the Australian batters. Bazball is also not just about hitting the ball. It has been wrongly perceived as mindless aggressiveness. There's always some thought behind English actions, and it's not always about hitting the ball.
Chasing 371, England lost its first four wickets for less than 50 runs. What followed was sensible batting by Stokes and Ben Duckett. Stokes continued with a cautious approach and only went berserk when he was accompanied by tailenders. It is true that the team could do with some restraint, especially when it has momentum, as was the case in the first inning in the second Test. However, these small failures don't mean that there are flaws in the overall approach.
Even down by two in the five-match series, Stokes' team will likely continue with its approach. In its essence, it's a cold-blooded radical tactic aimed at self-preservation. English cricket could do with a radical approach.
Bazball's prominence coincided with the racism scandal in English cricket. The scandal started after an ex-Yorkshire cricketer, Azeem Rafique, allegedly faced racism during his time at the club. He further alleged that his complaints were largely ignored by the club management. In March 2021, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) announced the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC) "to evaluate the state of equity in cricket and expose the realities of people's experiences within cricket."
ICEC released its report before the start of the second Ashes test. The report presents a grim state of affairs in English cricket. It warns that racism is "entrenched in English cricket," adding that women's game is "frequently demeaned, stereotyped and treated as second-class." The report tells the ECB to "urgently address deep-rooted and widespread institutional, structural and interpersonal discrimination across the game." It also shares numerous examples of homophobic, misogynistic and racist comments received by people at all levels of the game in England. Moreover, it calls out the elitist and exclusionary character of English cricket, which puts barriers for those from lower-class backgrounds.
The class-based inequalities were even evident on the last day of the second Test. After Bairstow's controversial stumping by Carey, the whole crowd broke into chants alleging cheating. The most embarrassing scenes happened in the long room of Lord's as Australian players were abused and heckled by MCC members as they were going to their dressing room. Khawaja and David Warner were particularly displeased with aggressive heckling and abuse by a few members, which almost led to a scuffle.
However, at the end of the match, ex-England captain Andrew Strauss blamed the booing on 'people who don't normally come to Lord's'. The tickets for the last day of a Lord's test are priced at £25 for the spectators. On other days, tickets go into the hundreds, thereby limiting them for a majority of cricket fans. Strauss's comments didn't target the elite MCC members whose behaviour even led to MCC officially apologising to the Australian cricket team.
While Bazball's merits would be debated with every game, there are more underlying issues in the game concerning diversity and inclusivity that need addressing. It remains to be seen if ECB learns its lessons. As far as Bazball is concerned, England will keep its approach the same, which means more entertainment and drama.
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