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Analysis

Bazball broken down, it's pretty simple really

How Stokes, McCullum have breathed a new energy into English cricket

Ben Stokes gives his team a talk in the huddle, England vs India, 5th Test, Birmingham, 2nd day, July 2, 2022

Ben Stokes gives his team talk in the huddle  •  Getty Images

On the penultimate evenings of the Tests at Lord's, Headingley and Edgbaston, Stuart Broad was padded up. He was not due in next in any of those situations: England were 216 for 5 and 183 for 2 against New Zealand, then 259 for 3 against India. But he was primed and ready to go for what you might term an "inverted night-watchman cameo".
Ben Stokes and the England dressing room came up with a much snappier term for it: "We called it 'Nighthawk'," revealed the England captain after the fifth Test against India, won emphatically by seven wickets following a record chase of 378.
"He [Broad] was going out with half an hour left to play to try to literally slog. That's where we are at the moment, it's awesome." The question was asked - what would constitute mission-accomplished for the Nighthawk? "Thirty off 10. Or zero off one," Stokes replied.
Perhaps that is the only shame of the last few weeks, that Broad has been unused in his new role, and the man himself is certainly relishing the new moniker, changing his Instagram bio to "Official Nighthawk". While the Nighthawk remains in his nest for now, the rest are flying.
It's now four wins through chasing in a row for a team off the back of a run of one win in 17. A switch achieved with many of the same faces in many of the same roles, some of whom were thought to be on their last legs as Test cricketers.
Stokes, along with Brendon McCullum, have breathed a new energy into the dressing room and the rest of English cricket. And for all the technical and analytical changes required going into this summer, they have mainly focused on keeping things as simple as possible. Something which has been spoken of by previous regimes, but never pulled off in this manner.
"At the end of the day cricket is about taking 20 wickets and outscoring the other team," said Stokes. "When you get real clarity about how you want to do things, it makes playing the game a hell of a lot easier."
It's amusing to regard such a basic explanation of Test cricket as some kind of epiphany. But it has evidently liberated a group of cricketers who for the longest time played like every ball, every singular moment in a Test match could end them.
That's why Stokes and McCullum have made tweaks around the performance side to alleviate the stress. Meet times are no longer set in stone, training workloads depend on the individual and what they want to get out of net sessions. Stokes in particularly has been the main driver of a more casual approach, and it speaks of thoughts he has had on the formality around the English game for the decade he has been an active international.
"I have been thinking stuff like that," he said on the move away from rigidity. "But the first chat with Baz was - yeah we can do it this way - why not. As long as everyone goes out there at 11am (10.30am against India) and is comfortable in knowing that their preparation is good. They go out there and know everything has been done in the way they want to do it as individuals to go out and perform - then why wouldn't you do it like that?"
One element that has bugged him for some time is running and fielding drills on Test match mornings, even when you're batting: "The warm-up thing was me saying, 'why are we going to warm-up when we're batting?!' What is the point of doing a few run throughs to go up and sit in my training kit again.
"It has taken away all the external pressures that playing international sport gives you - there's enough on individuals and as a team as it is but taking all the other stuff away is why everything is so relaxed and calm and enjoyable at the moment."
The key pillars at the moment are something old and something blue. Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, who took England over the line at Edgbaston with an unbeaten stand of 269, are in the form of their lives. Both recorded centuries - their fifth and sixth of the year, respectively - and have seen their global stock rise further. Root has extended his lead at the top of the ICC batting rankings, while Bairstow has moved into the top 10.
Bairstow's dominance this summer, with an aggregate of 614 runs at an average of 102 and a strike rate of 100.16, has been a realisation of what many saw in him. Incredible hand-eye coordination, the hardest hitter in the set-up and a fierce competitive streak. Root on the other hand, while continuing his remarkable 2021 form, has added a few extra strings to his bow, with charges to the seamers and reverse lap-sweeps over the fence.
Root revealed the Yorkshireman inside him still has a voice, asking him to get behind the ball and play with a straight bat. But he also ceded the voice of his captain is interrupting every now and again. Stokes, however, played down his impact.
"I didn't have any influence on that at all - that is Joe Root doing Joe Root things. When he played that reverse (against Shardul Thakur) we just said, 'you're a freak Joe, to be able to do that'. I've not said 'oh make sure you get a reverse sweep in today mate'.
"You're going to see stuff like that from Jonny Bairstow over the last five weeks. Rooty - I am bored of talking how good he is - to see him add another bit to his game, which I thought was impossible because of how good he already was, it is awesome to see that."
Typically, as part of Stokes' mantra for selflessness, he went on to further dampen talk of captaincy being as easy as he has made it look. Not just the on-field tactics which have been attacking and a key factor in England taking 20 wickets in all four Tests this summer, but the manner in which players are reaching new heights under his watch.
"The captain is not defined by himself but by his players and the players he has around him," he said. "And I've got an unbelievable group of players around me at the moment who are really committed to the cause of what we want to try and do. The backroom staff are absolutely phenomenal, I can't take all the credit for this. I have been a part of something unbelievable over the last five weeks and hopefully something that will continue to work.
"But not once I am ever going to 100 percent take credit for this because it isn't that. Everyone has bought into this way of playing cricket and that is where success lies, that everyone is on the same wavelength. I am just the one ramming it home about how we want to do it."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo