This Ashes has been billed as the clash of the styles: England’s Bazball vs Australia’s rope-a-dope and it’s too early in the series to pass a verdict on either of the two. In the opening Test, during the final session of Day 5, with Australia still 72 runs adrift with just 3 wickets intact, it seemed like the visitors had missed the chance to take the lead in the series. Despite Mooen Ali’s finger injury and Ben Stokes’s knee-niggle, England kept punching on a flat track and Australia were doggedly in their pursuit. Eventually, it was skipper Pat Cummins’s performance with both ball and bat that deflated the Bazballoon.
Now, before the start of the second Test, one important facet about England’s much-talked about playing style needs to be noted. Contrary to the general perception, England’s all-out aggressive Bazball has been rooted in practical considerations. That they chose a flat track indicates their approach wasn’t over-the-top cavalier. Perhaps, they were a bit unsure about their batsmen dominating the Aussies on a seamer-friendly pitch. So in turn they backed their experienced bowlers to ping the ball into good channels and it nearly worked.
In the days to come England faces a dilemma and loads of questions. With Mooen unlikely to take part in the series, and their bowling & team balance dented, it would be interesting to see what pitches they go for in the remaining Tests. With speedster Mark Wood expected to return, will the hosts go for a lively track? Do they opt for the rookie leg-spinner Rehan Ahmed? Will they load up the pace and juice up the pitch? Can England’s batsmen take on the intimidating Aussie bowling attack in amenable conditions? That’s where the macho-metre of Bazball will be tested.
Their openers perhaps don’t offer confidence to them on tracks with some spice, but now with the Mooen injury and Stokes’s reluctance to bowl himself a lot, they might have to gamble. Give their seamers the chance to run through the opposition. The conventional wisdom suggests that Australia hold the advantage now; they have the bowlers for all conditions and England will be hard pressed to find replacements that can maintain the team balance. But then over the last two seasons, England have continued to mock conventions; so one has to wait and watch.
Fielding traps for all batters
The pitch had a big role to play in England’s unrelenting attack during the Test. On the penultimate day, on the first ball of the morning, with the Test in balance, Joe Root went for a reverse-lap off Cummings. He missed, and the ball just about bobbed over the bail. Did that shut off his innovation tap? Instead, he executed two such shots in the next over bowled by Scott Boland; one went for a six, other was a four. What if that first ball had whisked off the bails?
The objections and reservations are perched on the lips of the conservatives, ready to be unleashed as soon as England fails. But they are forced to hold it back as England have been doing it for a while now, won a rare series in Pakistan with this approach, and have adopted this style successfully against all Test nations. This is the first time they are coming up against Australia, and so, the cricketing world is waiting for one last validation.
England’s field-trap has been absolutely spot-on, and intelligent. Shouldn’t the English “respect” the convention and keep men at the usual places? The field-sets weren’t arrogant or foolhardy or ill-thought; they made good cricketing sense on this pitch, and also how it was customised to different batsmen. When that intelligence is abandoned, then the critics can come in; not now.
Take the field for Cameron Green. They packed the straight V, the area where he drives powerfully, with four fielders. There were a couple – short cover and short midwicket – on the side. Now if Green has to score off the straightish balls, he has to go square; not his strong suit as he can become an lbw candidate with his tendency to fall over.
Take the Umbrella field set for the centurion Usman Khawaja. If there was one man England didn’t really bowl with a visible plan for a sustained period of time, it was him on the second day when he prospered. The statistics said he is susceptible to pacers angling the ball across him and is more than solid against the around-the-stumps angle.
Broad, however, went around for far too long. Nothing was quite sustained; Anderson went across him for a brief while; Stokes tried to straighten it from over the stumps for an even briefer while in the first innings. The fields were largely traditional. Once he went past hundred and an Australian lead loomed, Stokes kept the now-famous Brumbrella field, and he charged out, yorking himself. In the second, he set that field, and though they didn’t take him down, their run-tap wasn’t leaking. And the pressure built through that. They would have to revise the round-the-stumps tactic, though, especially on flatter tracks.
Australia’s first-session tactics
The Australian response was to play catch-up, and since it’s a fine team, they did it really well. But as Mark Taylor said on air, they will have to revise their first session tactics in the next Test.
On the first day, they spread the field, thinking England might get bored or combust, but this isn’t the first time England is doing this. On the fourth day, the field was attacking enough, but on a flat track, the nature of the attack wasn’t. “I would like to see more bouncers,” Taylor would say; he was talking about how they bowled to Root. On the final day with the bat, understandable to an extent, they kept pushing, prodding, hanging in there to see if England would wilt. They didn’t. Then Cummins seized charge of his and his team’s fortunes with the ball and bat.
That’s what this Bazball demands: it needs a befitting response from other teams; not old fogeys moaning away that this can’t last.
It’s not as if innovation hadn’t been done before; during the late 1940’s in cricket, Keith Carmody, an Australian, had an umbrella field behind the stumps, from backward point to square-leg in domestic cricket. He was frustrated by the edges not carrying or running through the gaps, and had eight men packed in an umbrella field behind the stumps. In 1953, Lindsay Hassett briefly tried it in a Test match for Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall. Just that it hadn’t quite seeped into popular imagination.
What Australia have been good at is they have the skill, and talent, to play catch up after England get away to a start. First, Khawaja, Travis Head and Alex Carey and later Nathan Lyon with the ball on Day 4. This was followed by Khawaja and Cummins on the final day. The response wasn’t the mirror-image of what England is doing; but a considered resolve and thoughtfulness. Perhaps now after this loss, Australia can be a bit more ambitious, and start strongly.
Or as Taylor said, how will England react if an in-out field is kept and bouncers are hurled in the first session when Australia were a touch defensive. The New Zealander Neil Wagner once won a thrilling Test last summer against England with that tactic; Root and Stokes fell to bouncers then, triggering a collapse.
What would England do if the field is packed on the off-side and the balls rush through the off-stump corridor; will they try to go across and get into a tangle. Opposition needs to try it out.
Like Lyon did on the fourth day; once he saw the batsmen go leg side of the ball and crash him through the off, he went round the stumps and started to cramp them with the middle and leg line. With a field for it. Root perished trying to charge and swipe; Harry Brook fell, swiping it to short midwicket. or how Cummins produced a gorgeous inswinging yorker to take out Pope. As the first session neared its end on the fourth day, Stokes pulled down the shutter with a 34-ball 13, saw it out calmly. As Australia adjusted through Lyon and came back, England had to respond. Stokes did, buckling down for 40-odd balls until he felt the time had come for the riposte.
More than the declaration, which was in line with their approach, their batting on the fourth day let them down. Root combusted though he was in such a roll then, that he must have felt one more punch could be landed just before the break.
Stokes mini-brain fade
Stokes, though, would probably cuss himself. Australia had spread out their field, only three men were in the inner ring, but Stokes had a mini-brain-fade. Such was the untenanted expanse near him, that he sort of just waved his bat tamely without much purpose, and the ball tailed past the waft to trap him lbw. The Root charge, Bairstow’s reverse, Moeen’s pull, Ollie Robinson’s chip (even he could have added 30 more vital runs). With another team several of those dismissals can seed doubts; not with England one suspects.
Gully-fication of Test cricket
The Bazball is the latest iteration, and a perfect encapsulation of how professional cricket is rapidly transmogrifying its soul to street gully cricket. In the distant past, the reverse was true; kids aping cricketers. Now, it’s cricketers letting their inner child shine through. We saw it first in T20 cricket. Some of the shots – the laps, the ramps, the lap-scoops, Suryakumar Yadav’s insane sweeps to pacers, or even the bowling like Ashwin’s carrom balls or the knuckleball-slower ones all have had their origin in the streets. Even Suryakumar admitted as much when he revealed how his sweeps were inspired from his rubber-ball cricket days.
Such has been this rapid gully-fication of cricket, that it has now entered cricket’s inner-shrine: Test cricket, itself. The urges all are from childhood; It used to be naive boldness then, it’s a deliberate strategy now.
Not just kids, but also from the adults who didn’t have the playing familiarity with the game. They would have simple questions. Why is he just doing tuk-tuk, can’t he whack it. Why can’t they chase 300-plus on the last day; don’t they do it in ODIs? Why should there be slips , why can’t he stand in front at an unfamiliar spot if a ball is being consistently driven there? All that would be negated with bemusement and with supposed ‘superior knowledge’; now with England, Test cricket is going through the gully-fication. It’s the kids who are having the last laugh.
England, though, have one big task ahead: Do they have the confidence to go all out Bazball on the Aussies on more sporting tracks? Their hands might be forced now, after this loss and Moeen’s future. Australia will be more emboldened and aren’t likely to start on the back foot. The rope-a-dopers will feel they can swoop in for the kill; what would the Bazballers do?