There were worried murmurs about the new English approach during the first Test at Edgbaston. But they grew louder at Lord’s on the second and third days of the ongoing second Test match of the Ashes series. Apart from the traditional England-Australia rivalry in the long format of international cricket, this Ashes series was expected to be a litmus test for something else.
There’s always been curiosity on how England will continue with the new Bazball approach of attacking cricket, named after current coach Brendon McCullum and used against other Test teams over the past year or so. The outcome hasn’t pleased everyone.
In Edgbaston, the disquiet about the approach was more about captain Ben Stokes’s first innings declaration at a time when England could have added to its advantage with a few more runs, especially with centurion Joe Roots still at the crease. As the match was lost only by a small margin in the last few overs, hindsight verdicts couldn’t but blame the unusual declaration for England’s narrow defeat. New approach votaries, however, argued that the match could not have moved to such a riveting finish but for Stokes’s challenging declaration.
Almost a week later, advocates of the new approach will now find it hard to brush discontent aside. The Bazball tactic was seemingly responsible for England’s first innings collapse from a comfortable 188 for 1 to 325 all out. Looking back, a position from which England could have perhaps controlled the match was frittered away by a reckless counter-attack attempted by its batsmen against the Australian ploy of short-pitch bowling. The former English batsman and commentator Geoffrey Boycott had been warning that winning, and not merely playing an entertaining brand of cricket, should be the only driver of any Test cricket strategy.
At the halfway stage of the second Test of the five-Test Ashes, the English approach has sceptics wondering if it’s the winning way. A solidly settled Ollie Pope, the great Joe Root, and Ben Duckett, who was two runs away from a century, all got out after attempting needlessly aggressive strokes to the Aussie short-pitch length plan. The dismissals seemed reckless, almost playing into the hands of an Australian tactic on a pitch that wasn’t assisting them too much. Moreover, off-spinner Nathan Lyon’s on-field injury meant they were going to be without a regular spinner in the course of the match. At the same time, the top line in English batting was approaching the innings in a manner that had very little to do with match awareness.
Reactions began pouring in by the evening of the second day, and many were blunt. On the BBC’s , former English captain Michael Vaughan said, “What came was absolute stupidity.” He chided the English side for taking attacking tactics to lengths of foolishness without being alert to what the situation demanded. In fact, the sedateness with which Ben Stokes approached his batting was calming late in the day. But that wasn’t what batsmen like Brookes had to follow – they were rigid with aggressive intent.
It’s possible that detractors would have cut the English approach some slack if it had pushed its side to a commanding position. But it hasn’t done so yet this series, and seems foolishly self-destructive. This will raise even more questions than answers.
First, how does the Bazball approach affect batsmen with technical prowess and elegance like Joe Root, who could craft a different kind of innings with his innate awareness? Is Bazball a general philosophy or a specific set of instructions for players and the team as a unit? The evidence so far suggests that even if some players successfully pulled it off over the last year, it doesn’t fit into their Test cricket playbook.
Second, is the English team a prisoner to its bold new stylebook, sliding into a frame of mind where it doesn’t consider pragmatism essential to reading and controlling a match situation? Ben Stokes sounded a bit dismissive of changes in the approach just because they’re playing the much-talked about Ashes. But sticking to an approach is one thing. Ruling out adjustments to wide-ranging situations is wholly different. In the process, it may also demonise the option of an inconclusive draw – a valid route in many situations.
Some may argue that how far the Bazball approach goes on to define English Test cricket’s current style will be largely shaped by what it achieves in the ongoing Ashes. That may or may not be true but the debate over it has repercussions far beyond. Onfield prowess, strategy and character in the long format has always put a premium on technical dexterity, patience, concentration and match awareness. This is what has enthralled connoisseurs of the genre across continents. In many ways, these essentials are reasserting their primacy as the English Test side grapples with holes left behind by an unthinking stylebook.
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