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Feature

Ben Stokes' England hurl themselves into riotous embrace of Baz-ball

As it hurtled towards its astonishing finish, Trent Bridge felt less like a Test match than a manifesto

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
15-Jun-2022
Ben Foakes hugs Ben Stokes after the latter hit the winning runs, England vs New Zealand, 2nd Test, Nottingham, 5th day, June 14, 2022

Ben Stokes said he was 'struggling to find words' to describe the events of the final day at Trent Bridge  •  Getty Images

Well, that happened.
Five hundred and fifty-three played 539 played 284 played 299 for 5. England beat New Zealand. They got some World Test Championship points and are no longer bottom of the table. They won the series. Jonny Bairstow was player of the match. All this happened.
But that? That was something else. That was sensory overload. That was a fever dream. That was all the vibes and feels of sport packed into a small ground in a small city in the middle of England best known around the world for an outlaw who may or may not have existed. That was a ride which, whenever it seemed like it might be dying out, instead got a little wilder. Ben Stokes sat, red-faced from the sun, from pouring every bit of himself out all over this Test, half an hour after the game and said he couldn't get his head round what had happened. England chased down 299 on the final day with 22 overs left, having not begun until 15.4 overs into the morning. They went at 5.98 an over. If Stokes, one of the creators of this, was having trouble comprehending, what hope any of us?
The finish was some end-days bonfire, burning history as we knew it. Targets this big don't get chased down like this on a final day. Okay, they do - shoutout to West Indies' 1984 chase of 342 at Lord's and Pakistan's famous Maghrib chase in 2014 - just not quite like this and not that often.
But this entire Test was played on the rumblings of something more seismic, not unlike that ODI series circa 2015 between these two teams where they transformed the white-ball game. Maybe we should've clocked the impossibility of that Daryl Mitchell six dropping right into a pint glass in the crowd - that feels like a decade ago - and taken it for a portent. Impossible was going to happen. In some way it was appropriate that an e-auction in India ran at the same time, an e-auction that feels as game-changing.
We'd heard about Baz-ball, this curious and vague mix of no-fear cricket played with campfire spirit where everyone - team-mate or opposition - is a mate and to be accorded due respect. But that was white-ball cricket, the culmination of which was the 2019 World Cup where - and this is dumbing it down - England brought the berserker and New Zealand the feel-good.
But this was Test cricket where Baz-ball had been untested. Unless you consider Brendon McCullum's Test captaincy and, I'd venture to say, a record of 11 wins, 11 losses and 9 draws makes it difficult to say anything of it. McCullum's 145 in his last Test, the fastest in Test history, is often invoked as a crystallisation of pure, high-grade Baz: New Zealand are 32-3, then 72-4 and McCullum? Hold my beer.
What doesn't get mentioned as often is that New Zealand lost that Test comfortably. McCullum slogged to the leg side in the second innings, a ball after he'd hit a six, and left New Zealand, effectively, minus 30 for four.
Stokes had a wonderful game with bat and ball, and also with words. He got to the nub of what Baz-ball may be with a wonderful turn of phrase that ad copywriters for sports brands are kicking themselves for not having coined first. "Run into the fear," he said, "of what the game was".
England ran hurled themselves into the fear of New Zealand's 553 - that is what made this game. Stokes' 33-ball 46 was the subject of a little discontent, specifically the dismissal: slog-sweeping having already hit a six, with England still 148 behind and only the wicketkeeper and bowlers to come. But he reasoned that he played it according to what he felt the game needed and, in his mind, the game didn't need a normal Test-match innings. And then, of course, with Bairstow, he scared the crap out of the fear of a last-day, 299-run chase.
All philosophy, we know, is great until real life has its say. Cricket has a geography that will make this happen. The surface dictates everything that plays out on it. And this was a very unusual English surface: pace, bounce, small boundaries and an outfield made of glass. It was made for this type of ambition. (As an aside, maybe this is the template England never knew they needed to build a fortress at home. Unlike, say Australia and India, touring England has not been a daunting prospect for so many teams, as results attest). But facing R Ashwin and Axar Patel in Chennai, or Pat Cummins and co at the G will require a more nuanced ambition.
Eras change gradually and stealthily, not over the course of five days. They're built as much on mistakes and missteps as the good times. And this is one Test. McCullum and Stokes are two men. Cricket isn't a game of two XIs. It is a game of systems and infrastructure and money.
But for the duration of the Test, nothing was more tangible than the prospect of a light being switched on, and probably not just for England but for the sport.
Strange things happened that played into this. On the fourth morning Joe Root quietly dropped a batting manifesto, urging current players to not be afraid of rewriting the coaching manual. Only if he had said this at the centre of Lord's could it have sounded more like the Queen saying Republicanism is the way forward.
Maybe it was the heady delirium of post-captaincy decompression talking. Maybe it was the dressing room mantra filtering out. But these weren't empty words. Three overs into that morning, Root would reverse-scoop Tim Southee for six. He was burning flags here.
Five overs before the close of the previous day's play he had played this hockey-flick of an on-drive from outside off stump, which was par for the course for a 20-year-old white-ball aspirant, not so much for a 119-Test red-ball veteran; his second boundary of the innings was a wristy pull he had engineered off a ball that was neither short nor too straight. Throw in the sweep off Southee that almost dismissed Root and this was veering away from just a cheat-day innings into - at least for this moment - a more substantial overhaul.
I mean, Alex Lees hit 19 boundaries in this Test, including a six. That's as many as he had hit in his four Tests before this, a (brief) career hitherto defined by a heroic refusal to put bat on ball let alone find the boundary. He began England's chase with three boundaries in the very first over, arguably the single-most WTF moment of this Test.
It was so infectious that New Zealand applied a post-hoc interpretation of it to their strange third innings, which is where they lost direction of this game. After gifting England seven wickets on day four, they said it was all part of a plan to be positive. It was as if they were reminding England that Baz-ball was their template, that Baz was one of them after all, and who better to do it than us? And by setting England a target on the final day of 299, who's to say they didn't get that right? Nine times out of ten, maybe more, that gets them home. Only last year they had set England 275 to win in 73 overs and England crawled to 170 from 70 overs. The chase wasn't realistic, Root had said. Fear ran into them.
Even the administrators got it. That is how powerful the moment was. Nottinghamshire offered free entry to all on the final day, certain in the knowledge that the moment would not let them down.
Probably by now, you're noting - with concern - how we're a little light of bowlers in this celebratory group hug. The Test began with a maiden from Jimmy Anderson and it's tempting to say that was as good as it got. It wasn't. The one strand of normalcy was the enduring excellence of Trent Boult. He didn't stop, not when New Zealand had a full attack, not when late on the fifth day, with Kyle Jamieson out and Tim Southee struggling, he was effectively part of a two-man attack. He swung the ball, he seamed it, he cut it, he white-balled it and, though the end obscures it, he wasn't that far from winning it on his own.
Also, 12 dropped catches will change the way a Test plays out. Which only adds to the unique, already mythical nature of this spectacle. It could have played out a million different ways, and yet it did in the one way that made least sense.
It might make sense by the time we hit Headingley. Or it might turn out it was all some dream. In either case we go there with these final words from Stokes. Asked how England would tackle the final Test - no dead rubbers in the WTC, thank you ICC - Stokes said: "Come harder."
That sounds, uniquely, like both a promise and a warning.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo