Stuart Broad can pinpoint two moments during the most recent English summer of cricket when the ‘Bazball’ penny dropped for his team.
Chasing 277 runs to win against New Zealand at Lord’s – the first Test under the new leadership of coach Brendon McCullum and captain Ben Stokes – Jonny Bairstow creamed three glorious drives through the off-side for four before being bowled for 16 by Kyle Jamieson.
The dismissal left England precariously placed at 4-69 midway through the third day’s play.
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Despite the lack of runs and poor timing of the wicket, Bairstow’s knock wasn’t deemed a failure by McCullum and Stokes.
“After that day‘s play, Jonny got (16) and hit a couple of nice boundaries – and he was praised in the end-of-day wrap-up,” Broad told Sky Sports. “It was like: ‘Jonny, the way you started was incredible, that’s exactly how we want this team to play.’
“Jonny is an amazing player – almost underrated, which is bizarre to say because he’s one of England‘s greats – but he puts a lot of pressure on himself. So to see the pressure just lifted off his shoulders … that was a great moment for the change room. He’d only got (16) runs, but the style in what he’d done it in was what Brendon and Stokesy were looking for – and I think everyone went ‘yeah’.”
In the next Test at Trent Bridge, England was 4-139 at tea on the final day. Bairstow and Stokes were well set at the wicket, but the task of chasing down the target of 299 seemed unlikely.
But not according to McCullum.
“There was a question mark of what if we lose one or two more (wickets)? What‘s the scenario of the game? Do we then shut up shop and go for the draw?” Broad said.
“And Brendon just called everyone into the changing room. He spoke very briefly but just said: ‘With everything we‘ve got and with every single player, we go for the win until the last ball. At no stage do we ever think about the draw in our minds. Even if we need 70 (runs to win), Jimmy (Anderson at No. 11) you try and hit the ball to the boundary and go for the win.’”
Bairstow returned to the crease and went “ballistic”, according to Broad. He smashed 10 fours, seven sixes and 93 runs overall in the match’s final session on his way to a gobsmacking knock of 136 that helped England claim a five-wicket victory.
“That was probably the moment of ultimate clarity that we‘re going for the win, we’re going to entertain,” Broad said.
“These people haven‘t bought day five tickets to watch us block it for an hour, they want to see us hit fours and sixes.”
The approach had sunk in among the playing group and the results followed.
Bazball had arrived.
Those two wins over the Black Caps were the first of nine wins England has now produced across its past 10 matches.
The team’s most recent achievement – a 3-0 series whitewash against Pakistan in Pakistan – was its best yet.
And it’s all been done with a smile and a style that has flipped Test cricket on its head.
“I can‘t think of any Test team that plays with that attitude, any of them – even the great ones,” former England top-order batter Mark Bucher told Sky Sports.
“There was always a much more serious business than ‘go out there and have a bit of fun’. We‘re seeing something that is genuinely new, genuinely groundbreaking.
“At the moment, it‘s been unbelievably successful – and long may it continue, because it’s been a heck of a lot of fun to watch – even at four o’clock in the morning.”
Ex-Pakistan captain Urooj Mumtaz added: “England can be really proud. They‘re revolutionising Test cricket. They wanted to give Test cricket the life that it deserved. They want to be entertaining. And they’ve surely done that here in Pakistan.”
What makes England’s recent dominance even more stunning is when you consider where the team was at in early 2022.
Before McCullum and Stokes took over, England had won just one of its previous 17 Tests, including a 4-0 Ashes obliteration in Australia and a shock series loss to the West Indies.
Joe Root stood down as captain after the Caribbean tour in April. Two months prior, head coach Chris Silverwood, batting coach Graham Thorpe and former managing director Ashley Giles lost their jobs over three successive days following the fruitless tour to Australia.
England was in disarray.
Former England batter Rob Key was appointed the ECB’s new managing director of the men’s team and tasked with overseeing the new era of English cricket.
Stokes was then appointed as England‘s new Test captain in late April before McCullum became England men’s Test head coach a fortnight later.
It’s been a dream run since, losing just one of its past 10 Tests.
Ex-England skipper Michael Vaughan wrote on Twitter he could make a case that the past seven months of English men’s cricket “is the best of all time”, claiming nine Test wins “playing a brand we have never witnessed before” to go with a T20 World Cup win.
Butcher said the narrative around the England side had changed dramatically.
“You go back 12 months and all we heard was that there wasn‘t any (talent) and that English cricket was in the worst place it could possibly be. ‘We haven’t got pace, we haven’t got spin, we haven’t got batters who can bat time’ … all of the things that we couldn’t do,” Butcher said.
“Now all of a sudden, Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum are saying: ‘We’ve got talent coming out of our ears. It’s just a question about how we employ it and how we empower it.’”
Former England skipper Michael Atherton labelled it “an incredible transformation”.
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“I can‘t think, both in English cricketing terms and indeed more recently in general sporting terms, of a more rapid turnaround,” Atherton told Sky Sports.
“Obviously things had to change in April, but I don‘t think anybody could have guessed how quickly the transformation would come.”
NO FEAR OF GETTING OUT
Central to England’s Test revival has been the attitude and cultural change, driven by Stokes and McCullum, among the playing group.
When Stokes took over as captain, he wanted to unshackle England’s players.
This has been particularly effective for the batting line-up, who now don’t fear the prospect of being dismissed in a Test, nor the post-dismissal feedback.
Stokes’ theory is if you remove burdens from individuals and the team as a whole, “you see players excelling and showing more within themselves”.
“I feel as if the ambition to win and play an entertaining brand of cricket like we‘re going to do, that’s going to override any fear of failure whatsoever,” Stokes told Sky Sports.
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“No one‘s worried about getting out. You don’t want to get out – you want to score runs all the time – but when that fear of failure isn’t there and you’re not tentative, you just make better decisions.
“I remember getting out one time in this series (against Pakistan) – I think it was a duck in the last innings in the first Test – Ollie Pope was like ‘you‘re in a good place aren’t you?’ And I was. You don’t accept getting out, but you’ve just got to accept that getting out is part of batting.”
NO FEAR OF GETTING TONKED
The same goes with the bowling group, who’ve learnt to remain patient amid the team’s new-found aggression.
Across this stunning 10-Test run, England has taken 20 wickets nine times. The only time it didn’t was in its only loss to the Proteas, who didn’t bat for a second time at Lord’s as they won by an innings and 12 runs.
“The bowlers have had to go: ‘Alright, we’re going to keep these catches (close-in fielders) in, which means I might go for more boundaries and I might go for more runs. I will not be going at two and a half an over.’ But in doing so and allowing the opposition to be able to score a little bit faster, that also is putting time back into the game and it‘s also creating more chances for you to take wickets,” Butcher said.
“It’s completely selfless,”
Star England paceman Stuart Broad added England’s ability to find a way to take 20 wickets was “very much a highlight of the new captain and coach”.
McCullum said the ploy with the ball was intentional.
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“It’s one thing scoring fast and putting teams under pressure with the bat, but you’ve got to be able to bowl teams out as well,” he told Sky Sports.
“The mantra within the group is: ‘How do we take wickets? Every time we‘ve got the ball in our hand, how are we going to try and get this guy out?’ If you go for runs, you go for runs, but we’ll back ourselves in and try and chase those runs down later on.
“I think once you have that mindset and you free yourself up from having to worry about runs, it allows you to at least look at things with a positive mantra.”
NO FEAR OF LOSING … THE GAME OR YOUR SPOT
The lack of anxiety with both bat and ball has translated to an attitude where the scorecard and result doesn’t define you or the team.
Broad said the freedom had generated a nostalgic, child-like excitement among players.
“I think probably the biggest thing that Stokesy and Baz have brought to the group is that mindset that you should feel like you‘re playing in the backyard and you should wake up like used to when you were 12 years old and the first thing you did on Saturday morning was open the curtains to see if it was raining, because you’re desperate to go and play cricket,” he said.
“That mindset that it‘s just fun and what will be will be with the result – the result doesn’t matter – but if we’re entertaining, taking the game forwards, being positive as we possibly can be and enjoying ourselves, we’re in a good place.”
Butcher added: “The idea or the feeling of losing either a four-day game if you‘re playing country cricket or losing a Test match was always something to be afraid of … It felt bad. It felt as though somehow your entire cricketing strategy or your cricketing skills were held in question if you lost one of those types of games.
“They (McCullum and Stokes) basically stripped all of that away and said: ‘It‘s not the end of the world if we lose one of these.’ And lo and behold, they’ve only lost one game playing like that.”
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And the confidence instilled in them by Stokes and McCullum means they don’t fear getting dropped from the team.
“How much easier is it to get clarity and the message across to your players when the selection is more consistent?” Broad said.
“Thinking back to a couple of years previously … we had an incredible amount of changes to the team all the time. Whereas Stokes and Brendon have come in and said ‘we‘re going to stick to quite a settled team’ – and there’s not been a huge amount of changes throughout the 10 Test matches.”
Opener Ben Duckett, who scored 357 runs at 71.4 across the three Tests against Pakistan, said it was a wonderful dressing room to be in.
“I‘m genuinely not sure I’ll play in a team like this ever again. Hopefully I play in this team for a long while,” he told Sky Sports.
“I think we‘ve shown that this series where we’re willing to lose games to win. When you go with that mentality, all the pressure comes off you. We’re just out there trying to enjoy it and I think it’s pretty obvious from the outside that that’s the case.”
TOP STOKES TRAITS ON DISPLAY
Atherton after the second Test predicted Stokes could finish his career as one of England’s greatest ever captains.
It’s a significant call, but one the former opener stands by, for he can see the powerful influence Stokes has had on his team in such a short time.
Atherton said the current English side, as a whole, took on two of Stokes’ best characteristics: His aggression and selflessness.
While the aggression was blatantly obvious, Atherton pointed to three examples of England’s humility from its recent series win over Pakistan: Debutant Will Jacks thumping three sixes in the second innings of the first Test when his team needed quick runs, debutant Rehan Ahmed’s approach when asked to bat at No. 3 and score quick runs in the fourth innings in Karachi, and Ollie Pope’s willingness to keep wickets in the second Test at short notice.
On the England team’s humility, Butcher said: “Not one person has mentioned an average. Not one person has mentioned anybody‘s individual stats. It’s one of those things that have gone out the window because the victory is more important than the individuals making runs within that or who is making the runs within that in order to secure the victory. The team wins and the team loses.”
McCullum backed up Atherton’s theory, declaring this England side is “very much in the image of the skipper”.
“Stokesy wants the guys to go out there and play with the most amount of freedom that they can,” McCullum said.
“I guess he‘s got the benefit of a long and distinguished career behind him and he’s in that stage of his life where he wants to do something significant and wants to make a real impact – and that’s not just on the game, but on other people’s careers. He’s identified that taking away that pressure and that fear of failure allows the talent to come out and the skill to come out.
“The skipper, he never lets a game drift. He‘s always got something happening. He’s always pulling a string somewhere and the guys follow him and it’s a great combination to have.
“I feel incredibly lucky that I‘ve taken over this job when Stokesy has got the reins and I think he’s only going to get better and better and better, which is quite scary. If he continues to improve and continues to drive this team forward, then the talent that sits within the dressing room will give it a good shake.”
‘A MARRIAGE MADE IN HEAVEN’
While McCullum played down his influence on the group – he cheekily suggested he does “bugger all” and had an easy job before adding “don’t tell my boss that” – his man management has been widely lauded.
Broad said he hadn’t seen McCullum throw too many balls or get involved in many drills at training sessions. But the Kiwi cricketing great always got around every player to check in with them and where their mindset was at.
Atherton said Stokes and McCullum were a “marriage made in heaven”.
Stokes said he wouldn’t want anyone else as coach.
“I didn’t realise that Baz and I would be so aligned. Sometimes they say opposites attract, but maybe that‘s not the right thing with captains and coaches,” Stokes said with a laugh.
“He‘s been unbelievable. He’s got to take a huge amount of credit for believing in me, believing in my way that I want to go about this and installing that belief into the players as much as I’ve tried to do as well.
“He’s very simple, very straight-to-the-point with the way he speaks and leaves no questions to be answered in anybody‘s head.
“As soon as his name was brought up in the conversation before we named the coach, I was like ‘we need to get Brendon McCullum’, because I obviously had a way in which I felt would be good for English cricket to go forward and I knew that Brendon was the best person in the world to be able to help me to do that.”
Doubts over Bazball and the legitimacy of the approach will continue right up to next year’s Ashes in England, which looms as one of the most highly-anticipated Tests series in years.
But Butcher said it’s here to stay.
“Lots of questions will keep coming about Bazball and the style, but they keep answering them emphatically at the moment,” he said.
“There were still some people that needed some convincing during the summer that it was the right way to go about it … I think they‘ve won pretty much everybody over now.”
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