Bazball – Why It Works, And Why It Sometimes Doesn’t – Being Outside Cricket

It’s been over a year since Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes took charge of the England Test team, and it’s fair to say that it has been a success. Won 13, Lost 4, Drew 1. It is a historically good record. They won 3-0 against the previous World Test Championship winners last year, defeated the number one ICC ranked Test team, and then became the only team in history to win three Tests in Pakistan. Drawing 2-2 against the new World Test Champions would have seemed like a remarkable achievement 14 months ago, but now feels like a disappointment.

As American football coach Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.” England are an impressively strong Test team now, and almost everyone (aside from Australians) would have to concede ‘Bazball’ works.

The interesting thing for me is defining what ‘Bazball’ is. There are two popular uses of the term. The first is simply as a truism, that Bazball is anything that a team coached by Baz McCullum does. The second is that it centres around a mentality of mindless aggression, particularly in terms of the batting. Neither seems particularly fair to me. For all the laid back approach, the golfing away days and so on, there does genuinely seem to be a lot of thought and insight into how England are playing now.

Breaking With Tradition

It is a fascinating aspect of almost all sports to me, how orthodox tactics become so entrenched within a game that coaches and players are almost risking their careers if they try something different. The example I would use is American football (sorry Chris). After a team scores a touchdown (the equivalent of a rugby try), they have two choices: To kick the ball through the goal from 15 yards away for one point, or attempt to score another touchdown from two yards away in a single play for two points. The kicks are scored about 94% of the time, and roughly 50% of plays from two yards out work, which means that the latter nets teams 0.06 extra points per touchdown on average. The funny thing is that almost everyone in the sport knows always going for two points is the better, more productive choice for many teams but no coach is brave enough to do it.

The reason is that many prominent voices in the sports media (and, let’s be honest, a lot of fans too) can’t wait to attack anyone who doesn’t play the game the way they think it should be played. Typically this means how they remember it from their childhood. This resistance to change can leave sports stagnant and unable to adapt to new realities. So it is that the ‘normal’ defensive approach to Test batting has persevered through decades, centuries even, to the present day.

A lot has changed in Tests over the past fifty years. Pitches are flatter, covered, and more consistent now. Batters have larger bats, helmets, and extensive training in scoring shots thanks to T20 cricket. The professionalism, fitness, and preparation for modern players are leaps and bounds beyond what was the case even twenty years ago. And yet, despite all this, most people’s perception of what an ideal Test batting innings should look like has changed very little.

The funny thing is that I look back on Test cricket, with the benefit of hindsight, I do see hints that point to why England’s Bazball batting is working now. Whenever an edge flew over the slips and the commentator would always say “If you’re going to flash, flash hard!”, because everyone knew that aggressive shots were less likely to be caught in the slip cordon. Perhaps more pertinently, the few stand out innings by greats such as Pietersen, Sehwag or Lara where they would just go berserk and the opposition seemingly had no answer for how to deal with it. The field would be spread, chances fell into gaps and everyone would applaud the audacity and effectiveness of the batting whilst simultaneously assuming that it wouldn’t work with lesser mortals, or in most conditions.

The conventional approach to setting a field in Test cricket is simple. For your good deliveries, place catching fielders where edges from a fend or prod might go. For your bad deliveries, place a few on the boundary to minimise the opponent’s runscoring. I remember hearing someone summarise the differing approaches of red and white ball cricket several years ago. In Tests, you have defensive batting against attacking bowling. In T20s, you have defensive bowling against attacking batting. With Bazball, that no longer applies. Deliveries on or near the stumps are just as likely to be scored off as any other, which means that the opposition have to radically alter their own tactics. As it stands, even teams with strong bowling units seem unable to counter this England batting lineup.

The new batting approach also seems to be helping England’s batters develop whilst in the Test team. When McCullum and Stokes came in, Joe Root was the only player in the squad to have a Test average above 40. For several years now, promising batters would come into the England dressing room only to become progressively worse over time. Now, both Ben Duckett and Harry Brook have career Test batting averages above 40.

My suspicion is that England’s batting malaise over the past decade has been caused in part by overcoaching. Batters have been given complex (and often conflicting) guidance from coaches and analysts within the England setup, which meant that they didn’t have any sense of clarity what they should be doing at the crease. This led to indecision, being fractionally late in their shots, which led to wickets and loss of confidence. That loss of confidence led to even greater hesitancy, and their batting average spiralled as a result. Bazball’s batting approach, to attack the ball whenever possible, simplifies the mental process at the crease. A confident attacking stroke is less likely to lead to a wicket than an indecisive defence, as well as obviously producing more runs as a result.

Returning To Tradition

Regardless of the previous section, it would be foolish to suggest that everything about England’s approach to Test cricket has to ‘reinvent the wheel’, so to speak. Some things are traditional because they work.

This year’s first Ashes Test aside, it is an absolute necessity to take 20 wickets in order to win in that format. Whilst the aggression of England’s batting unit has been largely making the headlines, there has also been a similar change in intent from their bowling and fielding. It is noticeable that there have been more deliveries targeting the wickets, and more close catchers being used through the innings.

Where England’s changes to their batting are without precedent in Test history, their bowling approach could almost be considered old fashioned. It was only in 2010 that England switched to ‘bowling dry’, being focused on reducing the opponent’s scoring rate rather attempting to take wickets as quickly as possible. The traditional Test bowling tactic was always to prioritise dismissing the batter over everything else.

The approach can best be described as the fielding captain doing whatever the batters don’t want them to do. Does a batter prefer being surrounded with fielders in close positions, including in their eyeline, over having a few boundary riders which might restrict scoring but also allow easy singles? Do they like having to play every single delivery because it’s near the stumps, or being able to leave every ball from the over? We all know the answer to these questions, which is perhaps why Bazball isn’t getting much credit for the change. Some things are so glaringly obvious that it seems ridiculous teams weren’t already doing it.

Prioritising taking wickets over economy rates presents a number of advantages for the team. It increases the likelihood that England will make early inroads with the new ball, which is particularly crucial if you don’t have some 2018 Dukes balls stashed away somewhere. Shorter innings means a lower workload for the bowlers (as well as less rest for the opposition bowlers), and reduce the probability of a draw. Perhaps most importantly for England, having shorter innings reduces their need for a spin bowler. This is not an area of strength for England, and hasn’t been since 2014.

Luck and Momentum

It’s easily forgotten how fortunate England were to win their first two Tests in the Bazball era. In both matches, New Zealand lost one of their bowlers to injury during the game. Root and Bairstow’s fourth innings heroics, whilst tremendously impressive, were against an overstretched and tired bowling unit. Those wins seemingly gave the England side a huge burst of confidence, particularly after a lacklustre winter, and allowed them to believe that their approach could work against the best teams in the world.

One of the interesting parallels to observe with Bazball is its similarity to England during Trevor’s Bayliss’ time as head coach. Selecting aggressive batters, playing batters out of position, picking inexperienced players on a hunch. These are all things which failed five years ago, but seem to work now. There are two obvious differences. One is the captain. Ben Stokes is far more attacking and proactive than Joe Root. The other is England’s form. Players coming into the squad now have a luxury which hasn’t been the case for over a decade; They are joining a team which is more likely than not to win the match. That is huge.

Success often seems to breed success in sports. Football teams with recent triumphs are just able to win 50-50 contests, snatch undeserved points or otherwise come through pressure unscathed. There’s an inbuilt confidence throughout the squad that they can recover from any position, no matter how dire. This England team has that, and it’s just plain fun to watch.

When It Doesn’t Work

If there is one thing which annoys me about batting in Test cricket, it is the half-hearted fend or prod to a delivery which is short and/or wide of the stumps. I simply don’t see the point in it. The best case scenario is that the ball hits the face of the bat and there’s no run, which would also be the outcome if the batter left it, but with the risk of catching the edge and losing a wicket. It is a high risk, low reward shot, and England are still guilty of playing it pretty often. I would rather they threw the bat at it, and at least score some runs, than keep doing it.

That’s right, I’m complaining that England’s batting isn’t aggressive enough.

On the same theme, there have been times in games when the team’s confidence and commitment to the Bazball approach has deserted them. On Day 5 in the first Ashes Test, England had virtually every player on the boundary whilst Cummins was on strike rather than actively trying to take his wicket. He’s Australia’s number 8 and you would normally back your bowlers to dismiss a lower order batter relatively cheaply, even with an old ball. Instead, England gifted him single after single just for the chance to bowl a few deliveries at Nathan Lyon. After the previous 12 months, it was an oddly defensive and archetypal England captain’s choice to make.

The failure to fully commit to doing what their opponent would least like them to do at any given point is perhaps best exemplified by the declaration on the very first day of this Ashes series. With 6 overs left in the day and Joe Root steaming along at roughly 10 runs per over, Ben Stokes declared. Given the choice between Joe Root continuing or essentially dismissing him and having to face 4 overs in relatively benign conditions, I feel certain Australia would have chosen the latter. This was a rare moment in Bazball when I just couldn’t fathom any logical reasoning behind Stokes’ decision.

Australia will also have been delighted by England selecting a patently unfit Bairstow over Foakes as their wicketkeeper. That choice arguably cost England the series, with Bairstow missing as many chances as he took in the first two matches. There are two aspects to this decision which made it questionable even within the context of Bazball. The first is that it ignored the strategy of being aggressive as the fielding team. Ben Foakes is a threat to the opponent’s batters in a way Bairstow wasn’t even at his physical peak. Not unlike having a short leg or silly mid off, both fielding positions Stokes is more likely to employ than his predecessors, even the knowledge Foakes is behind them plays on the minds of the batters.

The other issue is the lack of loyalty shown to Ben Foakes. He was England’s first-choice keeper for the first year of Bazball, a period in which they won all but two matches. He played well with both bat and gloves. He did everything asked of him, and was still dropped for an unfit replacement. For a team which has put great stock in standing by underperforming players and not changing a winning formula, it just felt incredibly weird. And it’s going to feel even weirder in 4 months’ time, when England will almost certainly select Ben Foakes as their wicketkeeper for the next Test series in India.

It may be a choice which also harms Bairstow in the long run too. As the only England men’s player who is seemingly in the first choice team for all three formats, as well as being an integral member of Welsh Fire’s squad in The Hundred, he looks set to play at least 7 consecutive months of solid cricket. He is a 33 year old wicketkeeper who has just returned from a serious injury. No one doubts his commitment or desire, but it may not be wise to put so much strain on him.

There’s definitely more good than bad with regards to England’s Bazball approach, but there is always room for improvement. With over five months until their next Test match, likely on dusty Indian pitches, I have no idea what will happen next. Who they will pick, how they will play. But that’s a lot better than being certain they will lose, as I was 15 months ago.

Thank you for reading. If you have any comments about the post, or anything else, please post them below.

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