Full marks to Stokes and Cummins — and lessons for India 

August 02, 2023 12:30 am | Updated September 29, 2023 11:55 am IST

England’s captain Ben Stokes, left, and Australia’s captain Pat Cummins, right, pose with the Series Trophies on day five of the fifth Ashes Test match between England and Australia, at The Oval cricket ground in London, Monday, July 31, 2023.

England’s captain Ben Stokes, left, and Australia’s captain Pat Cummins, right, pose with the Series Trophies on day five of the fifth Ashes Test match between England and Australia, at The Oval cricket ground in London, Monday, July 31, 2023. | Photo Credit: KIRSTY WIGGLESWORTH

It was not just two teams playing cricket in the Ashes series, it was two philosophies facing off, two systems asking the (cricketing) world to choose between them.

In the end, 2-2 was a fair result; after all, the effects of a revolution may not last as long as gradual transformations do. And Bazball needs tweaking, so a 1-3 loss would have been a setback for Ben Stokes, Brendon McCullum and their mission to win entertainingly.

Combination works best

It was the future versus the past, the possible versus the tested. Ironically, when trying to win, each team had to adapt the other’s philosophy, however briefly. And that is the beauty of the game. There is no one single road to success. Often a combination works best.

Stokes, looking like Moses leading cricket into a new world, said he hopes England’s performance has inspired a new generation. We won’t know how close he came to ditching Bazball after Australia went 2-0 up; but it seemed he and England were too deeply invested in it to withdraw abruptly. That England could have won 3-2 but for rain in Manchester is justification enough. Moral victories in sport are meaningless when it’s all about what the score card says.

On the final day of the series, Australia already ahead 2-1 and with the Ashes safely in hand, still tried to win. It takes two captains to make a memorable series, and Australia’s Pat Cummins, standard bearer of traditional Test cricket decided to go for the runs rather than play out time for a draw.

As wickets started falling, a fan watching from England sent me this message: “Cricket is the greatest sport in the world.” It was hard to argue with that.

England’s strike rate through the series was 74, Australia’s 51; England played against the better bowling attack, though.

Taking a slanted view

Bazball requires a slightly slanted way of looking at winning and losing. It can be argued that sport is as much about winning as it is about entertaining the spectator. However, when you entertain but fail to get over the line — England’s lot in the first two Tests — then questions will be asked.

It is to England’s credit that they didn’t switch tactics after those defeats, and revert to an attritional style, waiting for the other team to fail rather than provoking that failure.

Australia showed that Bazball could be countered tactically. Cricket is a game of time and space, and sometimes keeping the other team in the field for long, and trying to tire out their bowlers can be productive.

But not scoring at a good clip means, as they discovered, that when wickets begin to fall there aren’t enough runs on the board. England’s pace of scoring means they give the other team a chance to get back into the game; both tactics need to meet at a balancing point.

Bazball and investing in talent

What does Bazball mean for India? In recent years, especially when playing away from home, India have played a positive brand of cricket. Which is why their over-reliance on spinning tracks at home seems incongruous. The implication — that India can only win on spinning tracks — has been shown to be untrue with regular victories abroad, the runs made at a fair clip if not with the single-mindedness of the England batting.

England also showed — a lesson India seems to forget often — that investing in talent and giving a player confidence will be vindicated when it matters. Zak Crawley was seen as a disastrous selection, but his 480 runs has been topped only once before by an England player in a home Ashes series. England have been struggling for an opening pair but now Crawley and Ben Duckett have established themselves.

In contrast, a couple of failures in an ODI series in the West Indies, and questions are being asked about Shubman Gill already. Coach Rahul Dravid had to clarify that Gill is a leading player in all formats of the game and put that potential turbulence to rest.

In January next, England begin a five-Test series in India. It will be interesting to see if either team continues to go with their stated philosophy. Win at all costs or entertain at all costs?

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