Ben Stokes, Brendon McCullum

England Test captain Ben Stokes (left) and team's head coach Brendon McCullum at a practice session during the India Test series. PTI

Is England's Bazball strategy worth the hype? Knives are out

In sports, any revolutionary strategy should be thought out, not be imposed drastically, though each game can have minor strategic shifts.

The ongoing India-England Test series seems all set to dump the cricketing strategy called Bazball, which originated and won acclaim during the last Ashes series in England.

In the ongoing home series, India has crossed 400 three times (including a 396) and won the third Test by a record 434 runs, showing that England's batting, with its accompanying strategy, has collapsed in India, Bazball or not. The team crossed 400 only once and was bowled out in double quick time twice.

How Bazball was named

The new cricketing strategy was adopted after Brendon McCullum, the aggressive Kiwi batsman familiar to Indian cricket fans for his IPL exploits, took over as the head coach of the England Test team and is now in India in that capacity. Bazball is named after McCullum, whose pet name is Baz, and generally refers to an aggressive approach to Test cricket or bringing the daring hit-out culture of limited overs cricket and taking away the predominant defensive type of cricket or the Cheteshwar Pujara type of batting. It also implies that any score can be chased in a Test.

Though McCullum himself has not gone around talking about his strategy, he has been basically forced to hold the baby which is not his theoretical creation, though his batting style is at the core of this philosophy.

Then who created this strategy? Cricket writers. The name itself was the creation of the ESPN Cricinfo editor in England Andrew Miller, and once named and its contours identified, the strategy was laid at the feet of McCullum who had no option but to adopt it. Other writers not to be left behind joined in and added verbal power to the firepower. Bazball has come to stay and debated but McCullum looks least concerned, though sports writers are convinced that Bazball has changed cricket forever.

Test batting averages are going up

The origins of the Bazball theory are still a bit vague. After Ben Stokes became captain he wanted a new approach to Test cricket and adopted this approach, according to him, after a discussion with McCullum who mumbled his agreement. England made four successful above-250 run chases after the partnership took over and this was enough to set the strategy on its way and to get it the stamp of general approval.

“The dying art of Test batting” by Somshuvara Laha in Hindustan Times (2 August) draws out data to prove that batting averages have gone up, and batsmen are leaving fewer balls than before, showing that Bazball is a strategy whose time has come. The data is not convincing enough, and the increase in runs scored is only marginally better. In every sport, individual and team performances improve over the years, so to conclude that Test batting has changed dramatically is over the top. Batting averages have remained almost the same from 27.5 in 2000 to just 32.1, 23 years later. Strike rates have grown to 55.8 from 42.4 in 2000. All this can only be due to the fact that T20 has increased the courage and daring in batsmen most of whom have grown a fondness to let the ball soar away rather than settle down at the feet after a forward defensive shot.

To see how sport in general, including cricket, changes over the years, one has just to look at marathon, perhaps the rawest of any sport where you just got to run and run. In 100 years the marathon timing has been cut by almost one hour. Spiridon Louis of Greece ran 2/58:50 at the Athens Olympics of 1896. Kelvin Kiptum, who tragically died in a car crash last fortnight, ran the distance in a record-breaking 2 hours 01 mins. This also shows how the human body adapts to various forms of sport and to scientific training.

All about strategy

Former England captain Michael Atherton, writing in The Times, felt that in the first Test of the Ashes 2023 series, the second innings lacked ruthlessness (the very idea of Bazball). Also, Joe Root who normally plays with his head firmly on his shoulders might have been reminded of this new strategy, when he stepped out uncharacteristically and was stumped at 46 for the first time in his career, when well settled and could have firmed up England’s position.

In the second Test when the Aussies peppered the top order with short balls, they went at it aggressively trying daringly (as Bazball demands) to pull and three wickets fell in a heap caught by the fielder placed for such shots. Bazball played havoc with their approach, though no expert at Lord’s has blamed the strategy yet.

In sports, any revolutionary strategy should be thought out, not be imposed drastically, though each game can have minor strategic shifts. Or it will lead to more losses than wins. Also, coaches always forget, that for any new strategy in any game, the other team will have a counter unless well and secretly planned and executed with caution not with the drumbeats that accompanied Bazball. How did the strategy get such traction? It was clearly written up without sufficient evidence.

A writer at The Guardian defined Bazball as the intention to "play positive red-ball cricket; to soak up pressure when required but also be brave enough to put it back on opponents at the earliest opportunity…” Another expert, Christ Stocks, pointed out 7 main points of Bazball, of which the seventh point, “embracing mental freedom and fun,” has been a long-accepted way of playing and obviously not thought out by Stokes or McCullum. All this while which player did not embrace mental freedom and fun?

Bazball has no bowing strategy

Cricket analysts were excited and gave Bazball a colouring of a game-changing philosophy. In real terms, there is nothing that was not tried before, at least by individual players, if not collectively as a team with a thunderous monicker like Bazball. Which batsman would not want to score fast? The problem in Tests is that you have enough time to score and why hurry it up and risk your wicket and your team’s chances like England did in the first Test? The question is: how is it possible to be aggressive all throughout 30-40 or more overs a top batsman faces in a long Test innings? Anyway, theoretically, Bazball has no bowling strategy (though the name suggests so) like Bodyline, for instance, to supplement the hard-hitting exploits by the team’s batsmen.

The idea then is to chase a score in Test matches too and not just in 20-over matches. This was one way to change the traditional approach of batting first in a Test match to avoid batting on a fifth-day crumbling Test pitch.

There is nothing wrong in devising new strategies for an old game which is in the throes of total transformation. Overall team strategies (like for a football team to pack the mid-field or defense) should also be based on the opposition's strength (apart from your strengths) and other conditions. Especially in cricket where the pitch (only game in which the playing surface is most important), the weather conditions, and various other unknowns play a crucial role.

From the very beginning, Bazball looked hazy with the man after whom it was named not talking too much about it, McCullum was a reluctant inventor if at all.

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