Brendon McCullum
Former Australia captain Ricky Ponting (centre) with England head coach Brendon McCullum (right) and England batter Joe Root before the start of play in the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval on July 31, 2023. McCullum has turned England into a bunch of aggressive Test cricketers and rewards have followed. Image Credit: Reuters

Baseball is the new buzzword in cricket. I don’t like the term. Nor does Baz. Brendon McCullum is Baz, the former New Zealand captain who coached England to stirring Test victories.

McCullum was an aggressive batter who scored the first century in Indian Premier League. Well, you could say IPL is a T20 competition. But McCullum batted in Tests in exactly the same manner. The colour of the ball — red or white — didn’t matter to him. He whacked them all.

The Kiwi brought the same approach to coaching. But he found little success in IPL simply because the Kolkata Knight Riders didn’t have the team to deliver sustained aggression. KKR captain Eoin Morgan took the philosophy to English shores and found success.

Stokes and his merry band of strokeplayers

England could afford to play aggressive cricket because they had shed the conservative approach to batting as a new generation of strokemakers played with freedom. Jason Roy, Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and others played fearless cricket, enabling Morgan to revolutionise England’s white-ball cricket.

With England’s 2019 World Cup win, relentless aggression became the new mantra. Even other teams tried to copy England’s propensity to attack from the start. Although the powerplay was designed to allow batters to take the risk of hitting over the fielders in the 30-yard circle, some teams preferred a cautious start to preserve wickets to launch slog-over assaults.

With an array of gifted stroke players, England was able to sustain the momentum throughout the innings and even raise the tempo in the death overs. That fetched them the 2022 T20 World Cup in Australia too. Not all teams have such a quality lineup where batters can come and have a go at the bowling. 

Ben Stokes
England’s Ben Stokes celebrates after taking a catch to dismiss Australia’s Pat Cummins off the bowling of Moeen Ali in the fifth Test at The Oval on July 31, 2023. Stokes is fully invested in Bazball and has said England will play to win Tests as long as he is captain. Image Credit: Reuters

Back to Baseball. Under McCullum and Stokes, England brought their white-ball tactics to Test cricket. When a technically accomplished batter like Joe Root is willing to play the reverse scoop without batting an eyelid, you know the team has bought into the philosophy.

I always wondered what’s new about Baseball. Clive Lloyd’s West Indies played the same way. What do you expect when a team is filled with batters like Roy Fredericks (Desmond Haynes replaced him), Gordon Greenidge, Alvin Kallicharan, Vivian Richards, Lawrence Rowe and Lloyd? Batting fireworks! I remember Greenidge scoring a double century in a day when the West Indies chased down 342 in 66.1 overs for a nine-wicket win at Lords in 1984.

Wasn’t it Bazball? Baz wasn’t around then. Anyway, that’s how West Indies played their cricket. They call it Calypso cricket or the Caribbean flavour.

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Even the Australians captained by Steve Waugh in the early 2000s did the same. They racked up runs at over four an over. Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting, and Michael Slater and David Boon before them, preferred to score at a fair clip, with Adam Gilchrist providing the late-order blitz. That was like Baseball. Incessant attack. Just that no one cared to give it a name.

Now when Baz takes over the coaching reins of England, the media called his philosophy Bazball. They were even more thrilled when it fetched results. And why not? Before McCullum arrived, England won only one of their 17 Tests while losing 11. Now England has won 14 out of 18 Tests, which attests to the efficacy of Baseball. Or, more specifically, England’s ability to play Baseball. Not many teams can do that.

Since England adopted Baseball in April, they have been scoring at 4.77 runs an over and taken 20 wickets in eight of nine Tests. The high-risk strategy has worked for England with wins over New Zealand, India, South Africa and Pakistan. They nearly won the Ashes too.

What’s Bazball?

So what’s Bazball? It’s aggressive cricket. Absorb pressure from the rivals and turn on the pressure: with the bat, with the ball and aggressive fielding. There’s no Night Watchman to prevent losing wickets, but a Night Hawk to gather swift runs against a flagging attack towards the end of the day’s play.

Full credit to England for making it work. But calling it a new invention is a gross injustice to the West Indies of the late eighties and the nineties. And Waugh’s Invincibles.

Will other Test sides bring their white-ball cricket to Tests? Unlikely. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh certainly will not follow suit; at least not so soon. South Africa are rebuilding and the West Indies talent fount have shrivelled. Australia can but David Warner’s poor form deprives them of a quick start and the middle order is more staid, and Alex Carey is no Adam Gilchrist.

Aggressive cricket surely will rejuvenate Test matches. And it will produce exciting results like the fifth Ashes Test. But five-day games as the litmus test of classical batsmanship will cease to exist. Reverse scoops will coexist with backfoot defence. That will rile the purists. So what? At least Test cricket will not be on life support.