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Unraveling the ‘Bazball’ enigma: Can it thrive in India?

January 25, 2024 1:54 PM IST

bazball | india vs england test | stoeks | McCullum

By: Aditya Ahuja

The question shouldn’t be whether ‘Bazball’ will work in India or not; the question should be, “If not ‘Bazball,’ then what?”

Ever since Ben Stokes replaced Joe Root to become England’s 81st Test captain, followed by Brendon McCullum assuming the role of Head Coach in May 2022, England’s Test team has commanded attention from every corner of the world. Sporting a new style of cricket, the No.3 ranked team is yet to lose a series since the pair took over, maintaining a scoring rate of 4.82, reminiscent of ODI cricket.

It all started with England thrashing New Zealand 3-0 at home, followed by chasing 378 in a stunning 78 overs against India in the rescheduled 5th Test at Birmingham, saving the series.

But it was the Pakistan tour when ‘Bazball’ really emerged as more than just a concept, as the ‘Three Lions’ whitewashed the ‘Men in Green’ 3-0, proving that ‘Bazball’ can indeed be effective on foreign soil as well. With the series win, the Stokes-led side made it loud and clear that this is how they are going to play their cricket.

But the real question is, how often have England played on wickets that suit bowlers?

Much like England’s white-ball revolution under Eoin Morgan, which flourished by playing on more batting-friendly wickets and exhibiting greater intent, the McCullum-Stokes combo sought to implement a similar approach in the longest format, and they did find success.

However, the sheen came off a bit when the new-look England lost the Ashes opener in Birmingham, marked by Stokes’ blindsiding declaration, followed by another defeat at Lord’s after England’s moronic display of blind aggression.

The English eventually failed to win the Ashes at home, and now there are questions about whether they can stand up against the might of India’s spin attack consisting of Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Axar Patel, and Kuldeep Yadav, in the high-profile Test series, which is now just a sleep away.

Unlike the England team of 2012 that handed India their last Test series loss at home, the current squad lacks the skillset of Cook, Pietersen, Bell, Trott and Prior.

Hence, the pressing question: “If not ‘Bazball,’ then what?”

England’s Preparations

England boasts a commendable record of winning 13 matches and losing just four of the 18 Tests under ‘Bazball.’ However, the team might feel under-confident as they haven’t played any Test cricket since the conclusion of the Ashes in July. Moreover, they did not get any practice games in India either.

Nonetheless, the squad recently regrouped in Abu Dhabi to fine-tune their preparations ahead of the five-match long tour.

Batting Arsenal

Openers: Zack Crawley, who scored a half-century in the 2021 tour, hasn’t shown much improvement in his game under Stokes. The right-hander averaged 31.48 previously, at a strike rate of 64.01. In the ‘Bazball’ era, the guy averages 34.83 at a strike rate of 78.49. He has become more aggressive, but that hasn’t helped him score more runs. Crawley has also looked extremely questionable against spin in whatever cricket he has played in the subcontinent.

Ben Duckett, on the other hand, has always believed in playing an aggressive brand of cricket. What stands out is not only the further refinement of his striking abilities in this new era, but also a surge of 10.1 in his batting average, progressing from 43.11 to an impressive 53.21. However, the left-hander has not been tested much on turning tracks.

Middle-order: Ollie Pope, once touted as the country’s best young batter, has found relative success in the new brand of cricket, averaging 42.46 at a strike rate of 77.04, as compared to his average of 34.45 at a 61.52 strike rate earlier. But similar to Crawley, uncertainty looms over his ability to tackle spin effectively.

If there’s one player who has cashed in the most in this new style of cricket, it’s Jonny Bairstow. With an impressive average jump of nearly 22, climbing from 37.20 to 59.00, and an escalation in strike rate from 58.41 to 89.31, he stands out as the leader of the pack, effortlessly dismantling opposition attacks.

After Foakes was dropped following the New Zealand tour, Bairstow assumed wicketkeeping duties in the Ashes, which impacted his batting prowess to some impact. However, with Foakes back, Bairstow can once again fully concentrate on his batting.

Bairstow has not only fared well against pace but has also exhibited improvement against spin bowling. With ample experience on his side, it would be a shame if he fails to deal with the Indian spin giants.

Lower-order: Ben Stokes has always been more of a big-match player than a prolific run-scorer. Since his return to international cricket after a mental health break in 2021, he hasn’t displayed much consistency with either the bat or the ball. 

Despite adopting a more aggressive approach, he has been the least aggressive in this setup, striking at 69.56. He slightly improved his average under Baz, but purely as a batsman, Stokes hasn’t been able to make a very strong case for himself.

Notably, the all-rounder declared that he won’t be bowling in India as he continues to recover from his knee surgery.

Being the captain and also the senior-most batter in the side after Root, there will be heightened expectations for him to take more responsibility in the batting department and lead from the front.

Returning to the scheme of things is wicketkeeper-batsman Ben Foakes, a player who has been in and out of England’s plans. Foakes demonstrated good technique against India’s spin trio last time, which makes him a valuable addition to this England setup.

In a major setback to England’s plans, Harry Brook withdrew from the tour, citing personal reasons. Dan Lawrence was announced as his replacement. Questions have been raised about Lawrence walking into the team when he isn’t even part of the England Lions squad, which is currently playing in India. But, to be fair, during England’s last tour to India in 2021, Lawrence was one of the few batters who displayed some application against India’s spin giants. Not to forget that he can also contribute with some handy off-breaks.

Bowling Dynamics

With the aggressive approach that England has adopted, there will likely be batting collapses, and this is where the inexperience of English bowling will be put to the test.

Spin Column: The Indian spin quartet; Ashwin, Jadeja, Axar and Kuldeep, bring a wealth of experience with 183 Tests between them. In contrast, England’s four spinners; Jack Leech, Rehma Ahmed, Tom Hartley, and Shoaib Bashir, collectively have an experience of only 36 Tests. Of these, 35 have been played by Leech, with Ahmed playing just one, more than a year ago.

Among England’s options is Shoaib Bashir, a 20-year-old off-spinner with only ten first-class wickets to his name.

Additionally, there is Tom Hartley, the left-arm orthodox bowler known for his accuracy, bowling right into the surface, much like Axar Patel. But Lancashire has utilised him sparingly in the County Championship.

The most promising prospect among them is Rehan Ahmed, a teenager who left a lasting impression during his Test debut in Karachi 13 months ago, announcing his arrival with a brilliant seven-wicket haul. The kid is also decent with the wood in hand, maintaining an average of 32 in 14 First-Class outings.

Slated to combine forces with Leech in the spin tandem, the 19-year-old brings more balance to the side.

Jack Leach, undoubtedly the leader of the spin department, is making a comeback from a stress fracture. This marks his first First-Class match in over six months, and he shoulders immense responsibility.

Leach showcased his abilities in 2021, evolving with each game. Much of England’s prospects will hinge on his performance.

The overarching challenge for England’s spinners will be achieving consistency on India’s rank turners, where control takes precedence over the massive sidespin required in other parts of the globe.

Pace Battery: England boasts a healthy pace attack with players like Mark Wood, Ollie Robinson, and James Anderson in the mix. The 42-year-old legend is not expected to play a big role in this series, though, as he prefers playing on grounds where he anticipates assistance from the surface, which he might not get here.

For the first test, England is likely to go in with just one quick, and in my opinion, Mark Wood would be the preferred choice, as no other pacer offers more firepower.

However, if India prepares rank turners, as they likely will, it will be interesting to see how the management rotates other fast bowlers.

England’s quest to conquer India, spiced up with their innovative batting strategies, teases the prospect of a blockbuster series.

Will they mirror the glories of a bygone era, or will they leave with the silent echoes of moral triumphs, or, in the most dire scenario, none? Only time will tell.

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Last updated on: 15th June 2024