There’s a reason why something, over a considerable period of time, becomes a convention or a custom. It’s not because it is always the easiest method to get done things done. But it usually is the approach that has historically gotten things done. There’s no guarantee that it’ll work for all parties involved, although there is a sense that this gives them the greatest percentage of success.
Every once in a while, though, someone comes along and challenges those notion. It could be someone who, for the first time, said that the Earth was spherical rather than flat. Or, someone who said that there is civilisation way beyond what mankind knew at a very early stage. Or, someone like Nicholas Copernicus suggesting the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way round. Almost all of them are ridiculed and scoffed at initially. Not because they don’t know what they are saying, but because going against the norm is something simply forbidden.
But for the universe to exist and for the world to keep evolving, it is necessary that these people are listened to carefully. At first, it is very difficult. When evidence is put forth, however, it becomes extremely hard to ignore. Back in the 16th century, Copernicus formulated his theory. Yet, it was only after Galileo Galilei presented stronger observations that it was accepted as truth.
This happens in cricket too. In the late 19th century, there was a certain way the sport was played. Towards the end of the 20th century, it had developed into something vastly different. In the 21st century, cricket, although its core concepts have remained the same (scoring runs and taking wickets), is unrecognizable from what it was a couple of centuries ago.
When reverse-swing started becoming a phenomenon, it changed the sport forever. It gave bowlers something extra to work with and made batting a lot tougher. Then, T20 cricket came along and the emergence of two new balls at each end (in white-ball cricket) threw reverse-swing out of the equation. Bats became bigger and scores in white-ball cricket became taller. In Tests, the end result teams sought was very similar, although sides now wanted to get to that goal that tad bit quicker.
Among all this, you’d argue that a new brand of cricket – that too when ODI and T20 mindset has already spilled over into Test cricket, might not hold relevance.
But England’s Bazball is different. That alone should tell you what the world is contending with. When you dig deeper and try to understand what ramifications it could have, you begin realising how massive this is, and how hugely significant it could be in the years to come.
For those unaware, Bazball is basically a term coined for the brand of cricket England have preached since Brendon McCullum took over as the head coach of their Test side. It revolves around batting aggressively and bowling with attacking lines and lengths.
It has already led to four successive Test victories, which after England won once in 17 previous attempts, is an achievement in itself. The manner of these wins, though, is what has cast this as a revolution that many didn’t think this sport needed but one that feels, with each passing game, this sport deserved.
England have taken the world by storm this summer
Against New Zealand, England, rather unabashedly, spoke of their love for courageous batting. It didn’t materialize instantly at Lord’s. England were shot out for 141 in reply to New Zealand’s 132, leading many to ask what the fuss was all about and if the new head coach bounce had already flattened.
But England believed. They believed that they could practice what they were trying to profess. In the fourth innings, they masterminded a beautiful 277-run chase, with Joe Root scoring his first century in the fourth innings of a Test. They batted at more than 3.5 runs per over, although it didn’t really seem a drastic change. Yes, they were more positive than they’ve been in recent years and they didn’t seem afraid of their own shadow. Bazball, though, was supposed to be throwing caution to the wind, right?
At Trent Bridge, England took up that mantle. Jonny Bairstow was at the forefront and starred with a 92-ball 136. Ben Stokes followed suit and finished unbeaten on 75 (off 70 balls) as England hunted down 299 in 50 overs. In a Test match. On day five. And against probably one of the best bowling attacks in the world.
Since then, the legend of Bazball has only grown. The Kiwis were subjected to a similar fate at Headingley, although England’s crowning glory has to be the 378-run heist against India. Not just because it was the eighth highest successful run-chase in Test cricket ever, but because it came against India – a side many felt wouldn’t allow England to impose their identity.
England’s Bazball has found active preachers in other parts of the world too. A few days ago, in the coastal town of Galle, Australia and Sri Lanka battled on a spinning track. It wasn’t exactly a minefield but both teams, right from the outset, looked to attack the opposition. The Islanders didn’t do it that well and imploded. Australia, did it well enough, and triumphed.
Even at Edgbaston, the periods when India seemed in control was when they were playing an attacking style of cricket. Before Ravindra Jadeja and Rishabh Pant got together, they were tottering at 98/5. Once Jadeja and Pant opened up their shoulders, though, they never looked back.
While bowling, India enjoyed success when they searched for wickets. After the infamous Virat Kohli sledge on Bairstow, and the subsequent counter-attack by the latter, India went into their shell and couldn’t fashion as big a lead as they could’ve.
As for England, well, there is hardly any evidence that they’ve taken a backward step in the past month or so. They’ve fought fire with fire and have done so in a manner many thought was impossible. And at the crux of it has been their adherence to Bazball.
So, it might be prudent to understand what exactly it is. Of course, it is a philosophy where attack is considered the best form of defence. Where shot-making takes precedence over biding time, and where run-restricting gives way to wicket-taking endeavours.
But the cornerstone of this approach is the belief that permeates through every individual in the group. It’s the belief that they can do what they think is right, knowing that they won’t be dropped at the drop of a hat. The belief that they can evoke fear even in the most accomplished of teams. And even when they aren’t quite at their best, the illusion of fear will make them feel ten feet tall.
The most important part, however, is that everyone believes that anything and everything can be achieved. Just moments after seeing his side coast to victory, Ben Stokes cheekily quipped that he wanted India to get to 450, just to see how England would react.
Confidence is one thing. But this sort of admission – that too against one of the premier outfits on the planet? Absurd. Ludicrous. But founded on deep faith and evidence that they can really do it all. It will take some teams longer to embrace this message, although the brief remains clear – until you trust and believe that anything is possible, nothing will actually be possible.
Post the fifth Test against India, Stokes (to quote Jack Leach) also said that teams might be better than them but pledged that England will always be the bravest of the lot. For three and a half days at Edgbaston, India were comfortably the better side, putting England under pressure and making them question if Bazball was indeed sustainable. The hosts, though, were braver in all the moments that mattered.
This is something the cricketing folk thought was beyond the realms of possibility. It was something to be scoffed at – something to be cast aside as just a one-off. Something that can be used to show generations that this is how not to approach Test cricket – a format long considered tied up to its orthodox methods.
But this is, as Graeme Swann, Michael Atherton and countless people have said, a brave new world and as things stand, it seems to be England and Bazball’s world. What’s more telling is that this is daring to change cricket – a game that has lived on for centuries and has always followed convention, forever.
Only a handful of teams (if any) are able to leave that sort of impact, especially on the global game. It might only have been four Tests old. It could even be a false dawn for all we know. Yet, the mere fact that we are having this conversation, just four matches into this new era, should tell you everything you need to know. Not just about Bazball or England. But about how such a lasting impression might have never been created and might never be crafted again.
Every once in a while, the world needs these characters – characters who could be ridiculed for centuries if their hunch or gut feeling is wrong. But also, characters who don’t give a toss about that particular contingency. Because if they are right, well, they will be cherished, remembered and eternally written into folklore.