Keeping your faith in Bazball

Looking at how England won a Test they did not.

“We know what’s at stake at Lord’s. It’s not just the game and the result on the line, but also the faith that we’re asking the English public to have in us for playing in this new way. “

That was Ollie Robinson on the often unmentioned part of Bazball, what happens when it doesn’t work.

At the first signs of failing, England fans and media are already questioning Bazball. That should not be very surprising, for a generation of English cricket fans expecting the worst was part of their DNA.

The 1980s saw the team that invented the game slide into irrelevance as their media screamed about the West Indies team. By the 1990s they were the lowest-ranked Test team in the world, and after the ’92 World Cup final, they disappeared entirely from the white ball conversation.

If England were great at cricket, it was tough to see any proof. They actually started to build up in the early 2000s, and that culminated in the ’05 Ashes. But hard to take it seriously when they celebrated a single victory so hard and still got punished in the next Ashes.

They did win the ’10 T20 World Cup. But few thought of that as a real tournament at that point, plus Pakistan had won it 15 minutes earlier. During the 2011-2013 period in Tests, they were the world’s best team, but it wasn’t a long period, and South Africa were pretty as good at the same time.

In 2016 you get the idea that they are building something in white ball cricket, but they lose that year, and then in the semi-finals to Pakistan in the Champions Trophy. So it isn’t until 2019 that England finally get to the tip of ODIs. But even then there is the overthrows and boundary countbacks.

It is probably only by winning the 2022 T20 World Cup that they are thought of as unquestionably the best white ball team, outside those of us who pay an awful lot of attention to these things.

For a generation of people over the age of 35, England cricket means misery.

Now we have Bazball, and Barney Ronay has just written a piece about the cult-like nature of it. That is hard to argue, from a fan or team perspective. It already feels like another part of the culture wars. The England players have become angry blue ticks from Twitter who are paying to say things that perhaps you should keep to yourself.

Like, let’s break down the Ollie Robinson article for a moment from Wisden. It is absolutely incredible that English cricket allowed this piece to go public. And from sniffing around, it seems like no one actually read it from the ECB before it went out.

This is Robinson’s recollection of McCullum:

“We played all the cricket in the game. If it wasn’t for us, the Australians wouldn’t have even had a chance to win.”

I have been thinking about this a lot. Remember that McCullum said this privately, and what you say to your team is more about firing up the players for the next match. Except Robinson said all this publicly. So now I am not sure if this was meant, or if Robinson just went rogue again.

But look at the language of this, we played all the cricket in the game. What? Is Bazball suddenly the only cricket?  Khawaja, Lyon and Cummins played a lot of cricket in that game. It was Lyon and Cummins with the ball that meant that England failed to set Australia enough runs for instance. Hard to say England was bossing the third innings, they struggled in two periods and were saved by their tail.

“We were surprised by how defensive Australia were and how unwilling they were to go toe-to-toe with us.”

Australia were defensive, hard to argue that. But they also are a more defensive team.  Did England think they had been watching Bazball on the telly and decided to be more aggressive? This a team that plays to their strengths, and considering they won the WTC and now this Test, you’d have to say it’s going ok.

“We will always take the aggressive option.”

Here is the call bullshit moment. England often take the aggressive option. But they had seven fielders on the boundary to Cummins. They allowed him a single off the last ball in the over. Aggressive my arse, they completely lost the plot and went Alastair Cook-style defensive.

“I think most teams in the world would have just settled for the draw and moved down.”

This is fair. England do push hard for results. They forced wins in Pakistan that no normal style of cricket would have gotten done. They have also lost two of their last three matches by pushing hard their way. The declaration on Day 1 against Australia is fresh on everyone’s mind.

What about the Test at the Basin? England declare on 435 with two wickets left there as well. With Jack Leach batting with Joe Root, England again could have put on more runs, but to make a statement they declared just before lunch. This time it worked, the Kiwis lost two wickets and collapsed in the first innings. But on a fairly flat wicket, England decided to enforce the follow-on.

New Zealand don’t fail in the second innings and actually outscore England’s declared first-innings total. And then we get a classic chase in which New Zealand wins by a run. That game would not be lost if England had played it normally.

And look at what Robinson said they want to do.

“We’re trying to create memories and be that team that everyone still speaks about in 20-30 years’ time.”

Absolutely fine. Both of those last losses have been crackers. They also gave us the New Zealand and India chases at home, and whatever went on in Pakistan. They are absolutely winning the entertainment stakes. Even in their losses. If the idea is to gather eyeballs, a bit like McCullum himself, England are must-watch TV.

But the method they have used to change their cricket also has them losing their last two.

There is also this shared illusion from Bazball. Like, take this from Robinson.

“If there’s any movement in the pitch at Lord’s, the way we’re playing compared to them is going to benefit us hugely.”

Ben Stokes asked for flat tracks. That wasn’t by accident. He knew that was England’s best chance. When the pitch did have movement England looked completely arsed, whether it be Boland’s wobble or Cummins’ swing. England are putting on a unified front, but behind that the bowlers are saying one thing and the batters another.

All the England seamers were unhappy with that wicket, so shouldn’t that mean they are equally unhappy with their curator who made it so slow and also their captain who asked for it to be that flat?

The good news is it is nothing that cannot be fixed by England attacking more,

“But I think the way we’re playing, you could see us come even harder at Lord’s.”

England didn’t lose this Test by failing to attack. They lost five wickets for 176 in the first innings, and 150/5 in the second. Both times at around four and a half runs an over. They had way more catchers in against Australia and certainly tried a lot more inventive fields. They lost because they never shook Australia off. England were always in front, but they never killed the game.

I think England played better in the game. They should be confident going forward. However, Australia basically had Khawaja, Cummins, Lyon and Carey at nearly their best, and no one else. How many games will Australia only have four players do well in a Test?  And England couldn’t beat four men?

The bravado and confidence is great. Many teams have lost a Test playing better cricket. And this is a better headspace than thinking the series is over. But England are treating this like the only thing they did wrong was not attack more. They made heaps of mistakes - as Australia did - on the way to this result.

But is what’s happening that England are also Bazballing the press. A normal response is we played well, but couldn’t get over the line. And the Bazball style of Donald Trump is to claim you won even when you didn’t.

There are times when you look at what they are doing, and you wonder if it is about winning, or just trying to prove Bazball works. Like someone in a pyramid scheme buying a boat to let you know that the money really is rolling in.

What is weird is the key tenets of Bazball works, England won a lot of Tests by trying this method. But everyone has seen it now. New Zealand and Australia have brought their keepers up to the stumps. Australia played with England’s patience in bat and ball. England had to order a special wicket just to give themselves an advantage.

And England are not idiots, they probably deep down know all that. So their best chance is to believe even harder.

Remember Stuart Broad has already voided the last Ashes. If you close your eyes hard enough nothing before Bazball exists and England are the only team playing cricket.

Like Zak Crawley did.

“I think we’ll win [at Lord’s]. I think the pitch will suit us a bit more so I think we’ll win by, I don’t know, 150 runs?”

We get it, Glenn McGrath’s logic of the 5-0 was always sound, “which Test should I say we are going to lose?”. But there is something off about what Crawley did. He said they would win by 150 runs.

What? Does he know in this situation that England are going to bat first? Couldn’t they bowl first, and win by seven wickets?

What Crawley said is confidence without thought.

Bazball at its best was thought with confidence. We will own the middle of the wicket. We will hit the fourth bowler out of the attack. We will keep catchers in until you make a mistake. We will come up with new ways to find wickets.

But Barney Ronay was right that it very quickly has become a cult. To question the divine powers of McCullum is suddenly off-limits. McCullum has now been involved in two incredible nation rebuildings. And his ability to see strengths in players and make a system out of that is remarkable.

He didn’t make Taylor, Williamson, Boult, or Southee Bazball, did he?

But it was under McCullum that Wagner became Wagner, a cricketer we had never seen anything like before. McCullum did the same to himself. And he turned BJ Watling from a failed opener to a middle-order blocker as well. He also got New Zealand to buy into his idea to make the national team special.

Bazball has some of that. England couldn’t bat in red-ball cricket, but could in white. So what if they tried taking the limited-overs style into the five-day game? They had already experimented with leaving the crease to upset the bowler’s lengths, let’s do more of that. There are already plenty of smart bowling options, why not match that with more extreme and fluid plans?

From a cricket point of view, almost all of that makes sense. It may not work, and we are already seeing counters to it. But it also shouldn’t be seen as the only method they have at their disposal. They were a good dry bowling team before. Why give that up? They used to have more methods than just bouncing the tail. You don’t have to declare your first innings every time.

What appears to have happened is every single idea McCullum has - and remember most are very sound - is currently being met with another leader who has the same gravitas and penchant for violence in Ben Stokes.

To sum it up, from outside the change room, it would appear like they are missing a Mike Hesson or Gary Stead. Maybe even a Ross Taylor or Kane Williamson.

So Bazball is now an experiment about how far they can push it. A “Can we play Test cricket naked while snorting lines of cocaine?” vibe.

Look at Robinson talking about the mood in the changeroom.

“‘Were we aggressive enough? Did we go hard enough?”

They declared on day one, leaving anywhere from 10-50 runs on the shelf. They attacked hard in the second innings until it was their tail had to give them something to bowl too. They used three medium-fast bowlers to bounce out Travis Head bowling with shuttlecocks on a powderpuff wicket. They kept four slips in longer than Australia kept in two. They scored five runs an over with three sweepers from ball one.

Their problem was not attacking.

Bazball is no longer a team philosophy that changed their cricket. It is now part of their identity. If Robinson’s column is to be believed, their team meetings now feel more like people chanting in tongues.

In England, your new choices are either Bazball, or not a real cricketer, or so it seems.

Yet, there are already dissenters around the fringe of Bazball, and I am not talking about the bowlers complaining about the pitch. There are already rumours of players struggling to keep up with the new party method of the team. The drinking culture stories will start to line up soon. And knowing the Ashes - and how loud the current rumblings are - if England lose or draw this series they’ll start to hit the light of day this summer.

The problem with Bazball as a belief system - as opposed to it as a cricket tactic - is that it requires you not to question it. These kinds of belief systems aren’t always best for long-term performance. Eventually, someone will stop drinking the Bazball aid. The question is can they survive losses, bad press and current players speaking up?

Brendon McCullum could basically fly in the field, but no one can survive a lost Ashes.

Also, the Bazball culture doesn’t hold up well when you look it at in the light. This is from Ronay’s piece.

“We are here to save Test cricket. And we will do his by taking franchise money from December to May, playing golf during the red-ball season at home, and by never, ever saying a word in public challenging those who run the sport.”

Nuance is for nerds, just go out there and whack it, entertain the masses, and leave a good-looking corpse.

Forget the scorebook, what do the vibes tell you? In McCullum’s words,

“It feels like we’ve won, lads.”

As someone on the ground who heard the guttural moan from the Hollies on Brook’s last misfield, it did not feel like England had won. The English fans were entertained, but not  happy.  Their faith was Tested, not ruined.

England fans will keep the faith. Because this is fun, strange and exhilarating. But English cricket runs on one thing, the Ashes. And England will have to win them, not just say they have.