Mon. Oct 2nd, 2023

TEST MATCHES in cricket—the long version, in which both sides expect to bat twice over five days—have historically followed a set pattern. The team batting first will start cautiously while the ball is new and thus more likely to swing through the air (because of the shine) and bounce more steeply (because of the hardness of both the ball and the pristine pitch). By the end of the first day, having faced perhaps 90 overs, or sets of six balls, they will have done well to score 300 runs.
That is what made December 1st, the first day of a three-match series between Pakistan and England, so remarkable. Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett, the English openers, took 14 runs off the first Pakistani over in Rawalpindi and went on as they had begun. By lunch, they had scored 174 from just 27 overs, a rate that would be regarded as pretty rapid in a 50-over one-day match. The rest of the batters carried on in the same vein: England became the first team to score more than 500 runs on the opening day of a Test. Four batters made more than 100 each, another first-day first.
This revolutionary approach has been dubbed “Bazball”, after a nickname for England’s new coach, Brendon McCullum, who was appointed in May. Until his retirement in 2019, Mr McCullum was an aggressive batsman and was previously an enterprising captain of New Zealand. His arrival as coach coincided with the appointment as captain of Ben Stokes, a talismanic all-rounder who was also born in New Zealand.
Mr Stokes is from tough stock. His late father, Ged, was a former rugby league player with a persistent finger injury. Faced with the prospect of corrective surgery, and a long lay-off, he chose to have the tip of his finger amputated instead. For a while, Mr Stokes would celebrate success by raising a bent finger to the crowd.
The Bazball revolution began as soon as Mr McCullum and Mr Stokes took charge. In four home Tests against New Zealand and India this summer, England batted last and had to chase substantial totals to win: 277, 299 and 296 against the Kiwis and 378 against India. The team batting last in a five-day match usually faces the worst batting conditions; the pitch is worn, making the bounce uneven and the ball more likely to move in a devious manner. Making even 250 can be a tall order. Most teams approach the task of batting last fairly cautiously, for fear of facing defeat if they lose early wickets. But England played with abandon, reaching the target of 299 against New Zealand in only 50 overs and the 378 set by India (whose attack was spearheaded by two fine bowlers in Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami) in under 77 overs.
Scoring so quickly requires unorthodox strokeplay and England have used shots normally reserved for the short-form Twenty20 format of the game. One is the switch hit, in which the batter changes stance from right- to left-handed, or vice versa, as the ball is being delivered. Another is the reverse sweep, a paddle towards the “wrong” side of the field. Then there’s the ramp, where the batter scoops the ball over the wicket-keeper’s head.
Such shots put the batter at high risk of getting out and, not many years ago, might have caused him to be dropped from the team for recklessness. But Mr McCullum and Mr Stokes encourage their team to take those risks, and back them if they fail. Mr Stokes himself has found some ugly ways to get out during his captaincy, as he did in the second innings in Rawalpindi—when he failed to score.
Shortly after his dismissal, Mr Stokes made another decision that would have been unthinkable in the pre-Bazball era. He declared England’s second innings closed at the tea break on the fourth day, with a lead of just 342. This was a slender lead in the context of a match in which England had scored 657 in their first innings and Pakistan had replied with 579—and Pakistan had lots of time to make the runs. Other captains would have batted on until there was no prospect of a defeat (and thus, conversely, less chance of taking the required wickets).
But the new men in charge are more interested in the chance of victory than they are worried about defeat. For a while on the fifth day, it looked as if their gamble would fail. Pakistan passed 250 with just five wickets down. Then, in the final session, with the light fading, the wickets started to fall. The final Pakistani batter fell victim to England’s balding, bespectacled spin bowler—and cult hero—Jack Leach. The moment of victory is pictured.
Before Bazball, this match would have ended in a tame draw, and prompted many critics to lament that Test cricket was too boring for its own good. Outside England, many Tests struggle to attract crowds, with fans preferring the more action-packed one-day and Twenty20 versions. England’s new approach will undoubtedly lead to some ignominious losses, as their batting collapses through over-aggression. But their glorious derring-do is wonderful for the game and poses a problem for any opponent. And here’s an exciting thought: England’s old rivals Australia, who visit for an Ashes series next year, have the batting and bowling talent to match them.
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