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Was India Bazball’s graveyard or its baptism by fire?

22 months since Brendon ‘Baz’ McCullum’s appointment as head coach of the England Men’s cricket team, the calls for him and for his ‘Bazball’ approach to go have never been stronger. What else can you expect when a coach and team strut confidently into a series, and receive a 4-1 drubbing in response? There will be backlash. But Bazball doesn’t need to go; I don’t think this England team can make it without Bazball anymore.

England went into this tour of India with confidence. The last 22 months, under the coaching of Baz and the captaincy of Ben Stokes, have been characterised by a revitalised English team taking the attack to their opponents. The turnaround is famous (in cricket circles, at least), from England winning just 1 of the last 17 matches in the pre-Bazball era, to winning 13 of the next 18. With Baz/Stokes’ aggressive approach, England upped their scoring rate and suddenly found the killer instinct needed to become a successful team.

Undoubtedly their finest achievement is the clean-sweep series win in Pakistan, which exemplified its approach of scoring big runs fast and chasing results. The Rawalpindi Test is the archetypal Bazball win, with four centuries being struck at run-a-ball or better, the aggregate runs for the match surpassing 1700, and yet there was still a result. It’s not just speed; there’s a freedom and feistiness with which England approaches challenges now. The Edgbaston Test, where England defeated India, chasing down a barely believable 378/3, exemplifies their mindset that no target is too big. In the bubble of Bazball, every cricketer genuinely believes that the team can do anything, and that they shouldn’t worry too much and just enjoy the game.

With this experience under their belt, England came to Indian shores, knowing that they can win in the subcontinent, knowing that they can beat India. Playing India in India is undoubtedly the toughest challenge in all of Test cricket; they haven’t lost a series since 2012, and in that period have lost just 4 Tests out of 51. It’s presumptuous for any team to claim that they’re confident of victory. But Bazball is presumptuous; it makes bold claims because it genuinely believes in them, and this collective positive mindset in all the team members is what makes their winning streak possible, even if it appears ludicrous to outsiders. Let India think we’re bluffing or stupid; they won’t know what hit them. That’s what Stokes wanted to do, what he planned to do in the five Tests. 

In the first Test in Hyderabad, it seemed like what Stokes had predicted was going to come true. By the end of day 2, it seemed like the match was India’s, with England trailing by a heavy 190 runs. Yet the Bazballers believed, and from that belief came one of the greatest away victories of recent times. Ollie Pope produced a magnificent second-innings 196, and Tom Hartley bounced back from a first-innings beating to take seven wickets and seal an England win. At all points in that match England looked fearless, and the 190-run deficit only made them more excited to win. For the first time in over ten years, India felt uncomfortable at home. How often can you make the other team put on a lead of 200 and have them still think ‘is it enough’? It’s not unfair to say that the first Test felt like the harbinger of a monumental away series victory.

But what followed in the next four Tests was a nightmare come true for the Bazball faithful. India adjusted, their batsmen piled on the runs, and the bowlers recalibrated to torment opposition batsmen like they have for the last twelve years. Match by match, the series slipped out of England’s grasp, concluding in an innings defeat at Dharamsala, where it looked like everyone had run out of steam. The last time England toured, they lost 3-1. This time, they lost 4-1. It leaves a bad taste in Baz/Stokes’ mouth to admit that they did worse under Bazball than they did before. 

It’s not like the series was ever unwinnable either. There were moments in the third and fourth Tests where England were on top, and had they capitalised, could have notched further wins. Through the series, they lacked the killer instinct, that aggression that was so sorely needed, to make use of the good spots they were in. Where they should have ground India into the dust, there were batting collapses and bowling brainfades. In the third Test at Rajkot, England collapsed from 224/2 to 319 all out, blamed on a senseless Joe Root reverse scoop straight to second slip. In the fourth Test at Ranchi, England had India at 177/7 before letting them get to 307 with insipid bowling. Then they collapsed horrendously to just 145, and then while reducing India from 84/0 to 120/5, couldn’t finish off the job. England definitely could have won, but the ruthlessness, the ability to dig in, just wasn’t there.

Definitely, the lowest point of this series was the second session of day three of the Ranchi Test. India, with a spin masterclass, had brought England to 120/5 right before lunch. England’s lower order responded by retreating into their shells, putting on just 22 runs over the next 17 overs. Watching Ben Foakes blindly block balls felt like I was back in the pre-Bazball era, where England would crumble at the slightest difficulty. It was painful to see them struggle. Where was the Bazball aggression? Where was the fearlessness? By that point, England had returned to what they used to be, a mediocre Test team, not the world-beaters that Baz and Stokes had told them they were.

So, now that England have been humbled, it’s inevitable that there’s disappointment among fans. Anger and irritation with Bazball has been ever-present; from the very beginning, the insular, cocky arrogance and reckless aggression had not sat well. Yet Baz and Stokes could always point to their winning record. If it worked, it worked. Now they don’t even have that. Even the most fervent converts to Bazball sit uneasy; I know I do. Perhaps it is time for Baz to go, and his foolhardy mindset with him. Perhaps England needs to return to good old-fashioned Test cricket if it wants to win again. Perhaps that’s what’s needed for the next Ashes.

I am a Bazball convert, I will admit it. My worship at the shrine of the Holy Trinity (Baz, Stokes, and Rob Key) is motivated by the belief that Bazball is the best approach for this England team, with these players, at this time. I don’t think that it invented aggressive batting in Tests, nor do I think that it’s a sustainable template forever. But England cricket needs Bazball for now; England cricket needs to understand Bazball.

Bazball is not a philosophy of going out there and slogging every ball. At its heart, the philosophy is quite simple: it’s just cricket. It is just a game; it doesn’t matter all that much. When Stuart Broad says that playing under Bazball feels like ‘playing for a club side’, he means that there’s none of the oppressive pressure and scrutiny that English cricketers have to play through. It reminds them that Test cricket is about having fun and loving what they do, and that they should play the way that suits them best, no matter what outsiders say. Stokes wants to make Test cricket fun again, and that process starts within the team. So, he tells his players, go and play how you want. Slog your first ball for six, reverse-scoop fast bowlers outside off— we will accept it if that’s your cricket. The aggression is a result of the backyard cricketer in each player being unleashed. They chase wins because it’s more fun to go for a win and lose than play out boring draws; that’s what Stokes reminded everyone during their one-run loss in the Mount Maunganui Test. There will be no retribution for taking risks. 

English cricket needs this mindset now. The state of the team before and after Bazball speaks for itself. During the last Ashes in Australia, the intense scrutiny that every player went through put a toll on them that was visible in their playstyle, fatigued and as though they didn’t want to be there. The English cricket media can be brutal to its players, and the expectations it sets can often be too much. It’s better to tell your players to block out all that noise, because you believe in them. Bazball gives them the self-belief they so desperately need. 

Frankly speaking, English Test players are just not at the same quality level as their Indian or Aussie counterparts; there is a gulf between Jonny Bairstow and Travis Head, or Ben Duckett and Yashasvi Jaiswal. They need to make up that difference by instilling confidence and an ethos that these players can buy into, something that makes them work together, something that lets them play to their strengths and not to their weaknesses. That is Bazball. That is what the players of the English team have bought so wholly into, and it’s a philosophy I don’t think they can live without now. Once they have been set free, Stokes’ boys will always have that wild spirit in them. It’s best to embrace it, now that it’s been awoken.

India in India is truly the toughest challenge in Test cricket; one victory in five games is an above-average result for most teams. It was never going to be easy facing them, and while this series is disappointing for England, it’s not the stinging repudiation of Bazball that it’s made out to be. They would have lost like this even without Bazball, and the many times that England were on top in this series probably wouldn’t have happened if not for it. In light of that, Bazball is an ethos that England needs to continue to put their faith into. Yes, the confidence is punctured, but it can be reinflated. If England wants to keep winning, and wants to even be competitive in the next Ashes, it needs to recommit itself to Bazball. This series has been Bazball’s baptism as a mature, seasoned cricketing philosophy. They lost: now, they will learn. And when they come back, they need to continue with that boisterous, free spirit that has characterised their success. As expected from a fanatic like myself, my answer to Bazball failing will be to Bazball even harder. That’s how this team can win.

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