Well, I’m astounded, gobsmacked, dumbfounded, and totally stunned. I never thought I’d see a team score at seven runs per over across two innings of Test match. I just didn’t think it would be possible. And yet, here we are, struggling to comprehend a victory that turns everything I thought I knew about Test cricket on its head.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that BazBall will work every time. But it’s already working a lot often more than I thought it would. And it’s also accomplishing more than I had ever imagined. There was a time when I was deeply sceptical that an all out attack approach would be sustainable. I still am in some ways. However, you can’t argue with the win column. And England winning on a pitch like that – a pitch with about as much life as morgue – because they created extra time for their bowlers by scoring at a historically unprecedented rate is enough to make any traditionalist question how they see the game. What we’re seeing simply isn’t compatible with the preexisting model in my head.
It struck me yesterday that Brendon McCullum deserves a lot more credit than he’s currently getting from the sceptics. Yes, an attacking philosophy isn’t exactly novel, but his team is executing it to greater extremes, and with far more success, than Trevor Bayliss and other positive-minded coaches have managed in the past. What’s more, perhaps we should appreciate that McCullum, like any good football manager, is simply utilising a strategy that best suits the players available.
Put yourself in McCullum’s shoes, for a minute… You’re an overseas coach who’s been given the opportunity to coach England. The arguments about the country’s domestic structure, therefore, aren’t your primary concern. And it’s certainly not in your job description to fix county cricket’s perceived ills. Your remit is simply to get results. So what do you do? McCullum has cannily identified that the country is jam-packed with world class attacking batsmen – largely thanks to the counties who produced them, I might add – whereas top class red ball talents who might succeed the likes of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott are thin on the ground.
Therefore, rather than trying to forge top quality Test players from the likes of Dom Sibley and Haseeb Hameed, who often take 40 balls to reach double figures before getting dismissed cheaply, McCullum obviously believes he has more chance of winning more games by simply backing our attacking players who, after all, do what they do a hell of a lot better than the so-called first class specialists. Rory Burns, for example, will never be a world-class Test opener. But Harry Brook, on the other hand, has the natural talent to one day develop into a world-class counter-attacking middle order player. What I’m saying, obviously, is that BazBall isn’t just a philosophy that McCullum has pulled out of his rear. It’s actually a practical approach given that England currently have zero Alastair Cooks waiting in the wings but a surfeit of attacking options. If I was England’s head coach, I’d be tempted to do exactly the same thing.
So where does this leave us? Sure, we could do with another complete batter like Joe Root, who can adapt to the circumstances beautifully and play like a traditional Test match batsman. And it would be particularly brilliant if this player was an opener, too. However, there’s nobody coming through the ranks who looks like a potential superstar in the making with the ability to bat time and grind the opposition down. Consequently, it makes sense to focus on what the current crop can do.
The good news is that I’m beginning to think we’ll win more games than we lose playing this way. Recent evidence certainly suggests this. So there’s no point bemoaning our failings when things do eventually go awry. This England team isn’t the Australian side of the late 1990s or the Windies of the 1980s; therefore winning more than we lose – and accepting the risks when BazBall doesn’t come off – seems perfectly acceptable to me. At least it will be entertaining to watch.
It’s also important to understand, of course, that there are bigger issues than England winning Test matches at stake. Test cricket is under threat. The public wants to be entertained. And the crowds in Rawalpindi suggest that there’s certainly the appetite for cricket played in an attacking fashion. England often play in front of one man and a goat when they travel overseas. How brilliant to see the Pakistanis turn up and celebrate the longest form of the game, even though the home team were often under the cosh. It certainly warmed my cockles.
However, it wasn’t just the batsmen that won this game. England have long struggled to take 20 wickets away from home on flat surfaces. But not this time. Jimmy Anderson was imperious, recording figures of 5-88 from 46 overs on an absolute road. Man of the match Ollie Robinson was also excellent, especially in the second innings when he took the vital breakthrough wickets late in the day. Ben Stokes also bowled well. And let’s not forget the spinners, Jack Leach and Will Jacks, who took a combined 9-445 off 113 overs. These might not seem like spectacular figures but they comfortably out-bowled Pakistan’s slow bowlers and did the donkey work when the batsmen were on top in the first innings.
Before I sign off, I’d quickly like to mention Ben Stokes’s captaincy. It’s so refreshing to see a captain keep close fielders in, and show faith in his bowlers, after a decade of conservatism under Cook and then Root. Yes, Ben probably takes too many risks for some of us. I personally would’ve batted for another 40 mins yesterday – 340 on that pitch was probably only worth 280 in normal conditions – but he was vindicated in the end.
I don’t want to trot out the old cliché that you’ve got to risk defeat to win (one can win cricket matches in numerous ways). Declarations are always judgement calls and you either end up looking very clever or very stupid depending on how well your team bowls and how well the opposition bats. However, what’s becoming more and more apparent is that Stokes seems to have a gut feel for the game, and for captaincy in general; therefore he’s getting a lot more right than wrong at the moment. In fact, Stokes seems to have the midas touch in everything he does. Long may it continue.
Tune in next time when I slag off BazBall mercilessly after we fall flat on our faces in the next two games.