The fifth and final Ashes Test at the Oval which England won by 49 runs, July 29, 2023 (Photo: Getty Images)
TEST-MATCH CRICKET, STAID ONLY TO THE ignorant, has a rich history of revolution. Bodyline in the 1930s and West Indian pace-like-fire in the 1980s were bowling insurgencies that re-righted the balance between bat and ball. Test cricket’s off-field putsches—to end the Marylebone Cricket Club’s over-lordship in the 1960s and throttle the Test calendar in recent years—have been just as momentous. And yet no cricketing revolution, on-field or off, has been more thrilling or significant than the ‘Bazball’ revolution launched by Ben Stokes and Brendon ‘Baz’ McCullum, England’s captain and coach, 14 months ago.
The 31-year-old all-rounder and former New Zealand great came together at one of the lowest points in English cricket. They took over a Test team that had won just one of its previous 17 matches. And few predicted a turnaround. Stokes was known for his fierce competitiveness and spectacular feats, but had little captaincy experience and an ailing body. His appointment as captain seemed like an act of desperation, born mainly of the fact that he was, after the exhausted Joe Root, almost the only England player certain to make the team. McCullum was another throw of the dice. The then 40-year-old New Zealander, perhaps best known in India for spanking 158 not out for Kolkata Knight Riders in the first ever IPL game, had only previously, and fairly briefly, coached T20 franchise teams.
England’s new managing director, Robert Key, had for that reason initially approached McCullum about coaching the England white-ball teams, not the Test one. But ‘Baz’ had a different idea. He wanted to resuscitate Test cricket in England, the last cricket country where the five-day game automatically draws sellout crowds. And, it soon transpired, he and Stokes had the same audacious idea on how to go about that.
Bazball, as their idea was coined, is an effort to apply to Test cricket the same über-aggressive tactics that have made England the game’s best limited-overs side, current holders of the ODI and T20 World Cups. Stokes instructed his faltering batting lineup to score fast runs, from day one, no matter how good the opposition bowling or how tricky the conditions. He wanted his team scoring at four or five runs an over as a matter of course—and, to lead by example, he initially transformed his own technically sound batting into a blizzard of reckless slogs. By the same token, he told his bowlers to rev up the pace, forget their economy rates and worry only about taking wickets. Win or lose, Stokes and McCullum wanted their team to entertain, in part because Test cricket, that precious sporting pearl, needed to be thrilling to stand against T20’s instant gratification. But there was also a steely competitive logic to their calculation.
Modern, T20-infused batsmanship is characterised by poor defensive techniques, as England’s spluttering Test lineup was demonstrating. Only Root and Stokes himself had a defensive technique that would have passed muster with previous Test standards. And yet, more happily, T20’s influence, as England’s players also showed, had vastly extended the range of attacking stroke-play. By encouraging England’s batsmen to set fear of failure aside and treat a Test innings as lightly and adventurously as they did a T20 one, McCullum and Stokes had a hunch that wonders could be performed.
And wonders ensued. Coming into this summer’s Ashes series, England had won 11 of Stokes’s first 12 games in charge—often in stunning style. England won by chasing more than 250 runs in four of those victories—including, in an early announcement of the new style, by scoring 378/3 to blow away India at Edgbaston last year. During their 3:0 series win in Pakistan, they scored 506/4—at 5.50 runs an over—on the first day of the Rawalpindi Test. It was mesmerising stuff, a spectacular recalibration of Test cricket’s risk-reward equation, with seemingly no obvious downside. Old lags were rejuvenated. Jonny Bairstow, a brilliant limited-overs player but hitherto disappointing Test one, hit almost a thousand runs, including six centuries, in the first few months of Bazball. New talent emerged. After Bairstow suffered a freak leg break, Harry Brook stepped into the side and hit four centuries in his first six Tests. But could cricket’s laws of gravity really be permanently rewritten?
Some, especially in Australia, raised doubts—reasonably noting that Bazball had not yet received a prolonged test by a best-in-class bowling attack. India’s bowling attack, though excellent, is less good than Australia’s; and England had only met it once. “I said it initially when Bazball started, I’m intrigued to see how it goes against our bowlers,” said Steve Smith, Australia’s great batsman, ahead of this summer’s five-Test Ashes series. England “have obviously done well against some other attacks but they haven’t come up against us yet.”
So, who won the argument? Given that the Ashes series ended 2:2, following England’s flamboyant 49-run win at the Oval this week, the jury is formally still out. The Australians won the first two Tests by narrow margins—by two wickets at Edgbaston and 43 runs at Lord’s. England won the third and fifth by almost identical margins—by three wickets at Headingley and 49 runs at the Oval. They were also on course to win the fourth Test, at Old Trafford, before two days of rain intervened. Even so, no cigar. The record-books will show that the series was drawn, and therefore the Australians retained the Ashes—symbolised by their repossession of a tiny funeral urn reputed to contain the ashes of a bail used in the two countries’ 1882-83 series.
The record-books will also show an extraordinary contrast in the two teams’ styles of play. They scored similar numbers of runs overall—Australia scored 41 runs more in aggregate, but lost three more wickets. But there the batting similarities end. While Australia played pretty aggressively by traditional standards, as they usually do, England blew the doors off. Their batsmen maintained a level of risk-taking and brio unprecedented in the 140-year-old cricketing rivalry. They scored their runs at 4.74 an over, compared to the Australians’ 3.35—the biggest difference in scoring rates recorded in any series of four or more Tests. Of the 645 overs faced by English batsmen in the series, only 36 were maidens; Australia’s batsmen faced 894 overs, and conceded 171 maidens. Of the 74 sixes hit in the series—another record—43 were hit by English batsmen, including nine by Stokes in a single, brilliant innings.
The net result was one of the most thrilling Test series ever played in England—even if it was not always, it must be conceded, of the very highest quality. The benchmark for that measure is generally considered to have been set by the 2005 Ashes series. Won by Michael Vaughan’s superb England team 2:1, that series is remembered in both countries and beyond as perhaps the hardest-fought, tightest and best cricket contest ever fielded, in the Ashes or otherwise. This year’s Ashes rendition saw less dominant individual performances (remarkably, no batsman scored more than one century) and many more unforced errors. England’s catching in the first two Tests was especially costly; a hatful of drops by Bairstow and Root at Lord’s was ultimately the difference between the two sides.
Yet such profligacy did nothing to blunt public enthusiasm for the contest. Every one of the five Tests was a sellout, with black-market tickets reputed to be trading for hundreds of pounds. Test cricketers are now sadly accustomed to playing in front of empty stadia elsewhere in the world (even in India, tragically). By contrast, even when the rain came down and no play was possible for hours on end this summer, the English grounds were full.
Dig a little deeper into the statistics, and the significance of England’s Bazball makeover becomes more apparent. Though the series was drawn, all the momentum was with England. Their aggressive cricket had turned them from humiliated also-rans against Australia in 2022 to, at worst, equal contenders. In fact, the overall result belied an increasing English dominance of the series. Three of the four top-scoring batters were Englishmen—including Zak Crawley, a previous unrated English opener, who averaged 53 at a Sehwag-esque strike-rate of almost 90. So were the two outstanding bowlers: Chris Woakes and Mark Wood, though they only played in the last three Tests. (Woakes’ 19 wickets at an average of 18 and 79 runs at a shade under 20 made him the player of the series.) Moreover, the English team’s recovery, after losing the first two Tests, was remarkable.
In the modern era, no team has previously drawn an Ashes series after going 2:0 down. And but for the washout at Old Trafford, England would almost certainly have won the series outright. Over the course of 72 previous Ashes series, only one team had previously managed that feat, the Australians in 1936-37—led by perhaps the greatest cricketer ever, Donald Bradman.
To do the Australians’ justice, their slide was partly a reflection of their exhaustion. The Ashes was until recently spread over three months. To fit around the time constraints of IPL and the forthcoming ODI World Cup, this series was squeezed into half that time. Taking into account the Australians trouncing of India in the World Test championship in June, they played six Tests in 54 days. No wonder their fast-bowling captain, Pat Cummins, looked dead on his feet this week; his 18 wickets at a shade under 38 was also a mediocre return for the world’s best bowler. Yet the same applied to the English, who played six Tests in 60 days. And their resurgence was more conspicuously due to an improvement in their own standards.
That was in part due, as McCullum noted, to them tempering their aggressive play at times, as the situation demanded. Though they continued to attack almost relentlessly, they “refined [their style] slightly as the series wore on,” he said. Brook was the image of that refinement. Having got out recklessly in the first two Tests, he prized his wicket a little more highly in the subsequent three. In the process he scored three crucial half-centuries—and still ended the series with a scoring-rate of almost 80.
McCullum also predicted that England would continue to develop their explosive style. And this seems not only certain but quite likely to prove catching. The Australians clearly showed that Bazball is not the only way to win a Test match. But, to this cricket watcher, Bazball has redefined Test cricket all the same.
The underlying reasons for Bazball, that T20-schooled batters have poor defensive techniques and often breath-taking attacking strokes, and that Test cricket faces a desperate fight for survival, will only intensify. The pre-T20 generation of cricketers are now fading into retirement. India will never again see the like of Cheteshwar Pujara, who honed his technique to play Test cricket, and made his first-class debut before IPL was a twinkle in Lalit Modi’s eye. And the time available for Test cricket will shrink further, as T20 franchises multiply and demand more weeks of the cricketing year. Meanwhile, cricket fans’ capacity to enjoy traditional Test cricket will further atrophy. Bombarded with high-thrills, results-orientated cricket, they—perhaps even in England and Australia, last bastions of the five-day game—will for the most part look at Test cricket only if it can deliver a version of the same. T20 has thrived as lowest common denominator cricket. If Test cricket cannot appeal to that same denominator, it will wither and die.
That might sound rather negative. It emphatically should not. The steady asphyxiation of Test cricket has appeared probable ever since the Indian cricket board began, with the advent of privatised T20 cricket, letting the market determine how and where cricket should be played. In that context, Bazball is the long-form game’s first serious counterpunch. And what a punch it is! Test cricket, perhaps the greatest sporting format of any pastime, is not going to go gentle into that good night. Far from it. It will go down in a blaze of inventive field placement, go-for-the-jugular bowling and sixes—which, incidentally, Stokes has hit 17 more of than anyone else in Test history. (McCullum, with a career tally of 107, is second on that list.)