As Ben Stokes led England to a memorable victory against Pakistan on a benign Rawalpindi track a couple of weeks back, one couldn't help but wonder how much impact it would have on Test cricket. Let's put things in perspective here.
England and Pakistan both scored above 500 in the first innings on an unresponsive wicket that almost resembled a highway! At one point, England had the option of going with the conservative option by declaring the innings late and putting the game beyond Babar Azam’s Pakistan.
But the new England management under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes walked the talk of playing aggressive cricket and made a very sporting declaration to make sure both teams had an opportunity to win the game rather than meandering towards a tame draw. And what did we witness on Day 5? Pakistan remained in the game until the last session and England won the match with just about 10 minutes remaining before Stumps, in front of a packed stadium.
Let's see how this match would have progressed if not for England’s much-decorated 'Bazball' approach. In the pre-Stokes era, England would have scored 700-800 in just under two days of painfully slow batting. Pakistan would have come back with the same approach and scored maybe upwards of 600.
Considering that the first innings runs were scored at a conventional rate, Pakistan would have wilted under pressure or managed to settle for a draw. And of course, it would be far from a great advertisement for the classical form of the game.
This, in many ways, has been the very reason that Test cricket has found no takers in recent years, with some exceptions being the top Test-playing nations in India, Australia, and England. Also noteworthy is the fact that these series have been watchable primarily due to the sporting pitches provided in Australia, England, South Africa, and to some extent India.
Lifeless pitches, slow pace, lack of context, and fast-paced T20 cricket have been a death pill for Test cricket in recent times. Even though the ICC has tried to reinvent Test cricket with the World Test Championship and bring meaning to bilateral series aided by a refreshing marketing push, whether this is enough to push the format from its ventilator is anybody’s guess.
This eventually brings us to the McCullum/Stokes duo and their mantra of a no-holds-barred, aggressive approach to reset Test cricket and bring people back to the stadiums. While both have always played cricket with unadulterated aggression and their dedication towards Test cricket is unchallenged, how they will shape the English cricket approach is the ultimate question.
Stokes announced his commitment to Tests by stepping away from ODIs, where he probably achieved everything by 2019, while McCullum announced his backing for players like Jonny Bairstow, Olie Pope and Harry Brook - who are naturally aggressive players. This is analogous to England’s white-ball renaissance led by Eoin Morgan following the 2015 World Cup, culminating in their triumph at home in 2019.
Today, for neutral cricket fans, the excitement in a Test match is dependent on the quantum of swing, spin, and movement on the pitch and, more importantly, whether we have players with high strike rates in a team. It can be a Rishabh Pant for India, Ben Stokes for England, and Mohammad Rizwan for Pakistan. It used to be Gilchrist for Australia, and Sehwag for India sometime back.
Stokes' made fans take notice at Headingley in 2019, when he pulled off an incredible win against Australia from the jaws of defeat, and Pant did the same against a ferocious Aussie pace attack at the Gabba in 2021. These matches had nail-biting finishes — probably better than last-over finishes in T20 — and brought back the talk of Test cricket being the ultimate format of the game.
However, I am afraid these matches will remain flashes in the pan unless some radical changes happen regarding the pace of Test cricket.
Does this mean it's up to other nations to play catchup with England and start playing aggressive cricket just to make Tests more marketable? Can India, Australia, and South Africa also introduce the same brand of cricket and make Tests more result driven?
Looking at the current set of players, it seems unviable for the likes of the Indian team to get on the 'Bazball' bandwagon. The overall strategy of any team is built around the playing style of players in a team. It would be foolhardy to suddenly expect the likes of Steve Smith, Virat Kohli, and Temba Bavuma to follow a bold approach.
Nonetheless, it would be a mouthwatering prospect to see which style will prevail once England's new approach comes up against the old-school Test cricket of Australia and India (Watch out for the 2023 Ashes!)
So, what does the future of Test cricket look like? Looking at the way in which McCullum and Stokes have committed to this approach, I expect England to continue the trend in the next couple of years and select players who maximize this approach. The next two series against Australia and India could well be an acid test for the English.
Just as the last decade saw the emergence of fewer draws and more result-oriented cricket, this decade might see an emergence of bold declarations, high strike rates in rain-affected matches, more aggressive bowling lines ups (use of wrist spin) and, of course, more lively tracks which ultimately dictates the pace of the game.
What's in it for fans though? The recent Karachi test between Pakistan and New Zealand might have ended in a draw in fading light, but it also gave an hint of what exactly ails Test cricket currently. It was painfully boring to witness the Test throughout the five days except the last hour, thanks to Babar Azam’s declaration.
Test matches like these on a benign pitch with almost zero support for pacers/spinners — played in front of empty stands — ultimately puts the onus on batters and respective captains to decide the pace of the game. As teams play higher number of dead contests like these, the closer Test Cricket will be to its tragic end.
Can players across the world play a brand of cricket that appeals to the fans, brings younger generation to the stadiums, and also in the process, figure out a way to win matches for their country? Can England sustain the 'Bazball' success over the next couple of years and force their opposition teams to adopt the same approach as well? The answer to this might well define the future of Test cricket.
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