Can England replicate its recent success for a considerable length of time and under more testing conditions and against more formidable oppositions?
England is currently no.2 in ICC’s ODI and T20I rankings both. It’s a side that’s considered favorite for any international tournament hosted by the International Cricket Committee (ICC) as far as the shorter formats are concerned.
But, until last 5 or 6 years, English team was an underachiever in both the formats.. They had a disastrous outing in the 2015 World Cup. They lost with big margins and the most humiliating defeat was the one at the hands of the not-so-favourite Bangladesh who knocked them out of the tournament.
Then a 360 degree turnaround took place, which is attributed to the change in their approach and attitude to the shorter versions and the results began to show. This new approach to the game finally translated into the 2019 World Cup triumph, an unprecedented feat despite the country having made it to the finals on several occasion.
There were three masterminds behind the resurgence: Andrew Strauss, who was appointed as the director of England Cricket after the group stage exit from the 2015 World Cup, Trevor Bayliss, the head coach who actually revamped the brand of cricket played by England and Eoin Morgan, the aggressive batsman who led the side, fortified the batting lineup and introduced an aggressive approach to batsmanship, which turned the side into a formidable adversary.
Two months ago, England Test team found themselves in a situation similar to their world cup team of 2015: down and out, Just one win in their 17 Test outings. Plunging to one of their lowest ebbs in Test cricket – as if the Ashes humiliation wasn’t enough – they lost a series in West Indies too.
This set off a debate in the press and the cricketing circles in England on how the Test squad could be revamped, with many former and current cricket greats advocating for major systemic changes and axing of ECB office bearers. The South African-born Kevin Peterson, who played a pivotal role in the epic 2005 Ashes win, suggested the first class competition should look like a red ball version of the 100-format in England. James Anderson suggested county pitches be improved. Star batsman Joe Root described the firstclass structure as horrible.
With all these big names throwing their weight behind, a swift change was bound to take place.
Before digging deep and reviewing the county system and making any long term changes, the think tank went for the time-tested mantra: playing an aggressive brand of cricket, which revitalized their white ball fortunes after 2015 World Cup.
Some heads were bound to roll as those with an aggressive approach were put at the helm. Joe Root was replaced by a more aggressive Ben Stokes as the captain and former New Zealand great Brendon McCullum, known for destroying bowling attacks across formats in his day, was appointed as Test coach.
Though the appointment of Stokes and McCullum was criticized by many, it didn’t take long for them to silence the critics and give a glimpse into the future. This new template is being called ‘Bazball’, a play on McCullum’s nickname, Baz. Interestingly, the coach doesn’t seem to be too impressed by the name. Needless to say he won’t mind much as long as the team delivers.
The last five weeks of England Test cricket have been overly exciting with a 3-0 series win against world champions New Zealand followed by a thumping victory over India while chasing a record total of 378 on the last day of the match. In each of these four Tests, England had to bat last. Batting on the fourth and fifth day can be tricky on a Test wicket, but this England side showed the ability to chase down big targets with both sound strategy and dominance as per the situation. The chase against India stamped the redefinition of the English approach in the longest format.
Many might presume that Bazzball is only about belting the ball, but if one keenly looks how well these chases were planned, it is quite evident that despite hiccups, collapses and lags, England never seemed to panic. For example, against India, England had a deficit of 132 runs to the first innings score of India, but it came back to bundle India out for 245 in their second Innings and, then, while chasing a mammoth total of 378 they got reduced to 109-3, a mini-collapse after a 100-run opening stand. But Root and Bairstow joined to first consolidate the position and then started to dictate terms with amazing range of shots all over the ground. There were some tricky moments against New Zealand as well – especially in the Lord’s test – yet they managed to pull off massive wins.
So far so good! It has been an impressive resurgence with a new look and brand of cricket, which experts say is a timely and wonderful advertisement for Test cricket and a redefinition of the longest format of the game which is struggling to survive in the era of fast paced formats and lucrative T20 leagues.
As McCullum said: “We’ve got an obligation to entertain. Particularly the next generation of kids who will have so many different options out there, so that’s one of the fundamental reasons why the guys are wanting to play this style of cricket and it seems really to resonate with them.”
Ben Stokes had this to say: “There might be teams stronger than us, but no one will be braver than us.”
However, even if there is so much of appreciation for England for this approach, it should be more challenging for them to carry on with a similar winning streak with change in opposition and conditions. The next assignment comes with a home series against South Africa, who have a more potent bowling attack than both New Zealand and India. It won’t be easy to dominate against the likes of Rabada, Nortje and Jansen who are quicker and get some extra lift off the deck. Then comes the Subcontinent challenge against Pakistan, which is also a strong bowling unit and will usually have spin friendly wickets. However, 2023 Ashes is going to be the toughest of them all. Arch rivals Australia have already started playing mind games, trying to mock and make light of England’s success. It began with Steve Smith, who said: “If you come on a wicket that’s got some grass and Hazlewood, Cummins and Starc are rolling in at you, is it going to be the same? We”ll see what happens.”
Currently the team is heavily loaded on Joe root, Ben Stokes and Bairstow in the middle order. The opening slots and one drop position is yet to be finalized. Alex Lees looked good against India. However, opener Crawley hasn’t at all been impressive yet. Pope hit a scintillating hundred against New Zealand but he needs to be consistent. He averages under 30 and has scored just two centuries, having already played 27 Tests.
England might be tempted to bring Butler back into the Test fold. The aggressive wicketkeeper batsman had a good start to his Test career but failed to remain consistent and, consequently, got dropped. However, his capability with the willow is not any secret and he could be an ideal addition to the team for the current brand of batsmanship.
But England’s concern remains its bowling. Currently, the 39-year old Anderson, who is in twilight of his career, is the best bowler in the side, like the Rustam of Persia. Stuart Broad has lost his pace, variations and all that he carried throughout his career, probably overdue for retirement. England must be worried about their bowling prospects. Injuries to some of their promising fast bowlers too haven’t helped the cause. Nursing multiple injuries, Jofra Archer, may not be returning any time soon. Similarly the likes of Mark wood, Robinson and Sajid Mehmood are also sidelined because of injuries. Potts, nevertheless, has shown some promise. Spin department is also an issue.
For now, though, it’s a great going. With four wins from four matches following one win from seventeen, it’s a remarkable improvement.
Plan A seems to be working well for England and only time will tell how long they can maintain the success and create a legacy, with other teams following in their footsteps.
Bilal Ahsan Dar is a blogger and cricket buff.