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Feature

'Let's play Bazball!' - Ranking England's 11 Tests under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes

From a setback at Lord's to the craziness of Rawalpindi, we compare and contrast the Baz-approved method

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
21-Feb-2023
Leader of the pack: Ben Stokes out in front in Mount Maunganui  •  Getty Images

Leader of the pack: Ben Stokes out in front in Mount Maunganui  •  Getty Images

Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum came together as England's new captain-coach partnership at the start of the last English summer, with the team in the doldrums having won one of their previous 17 Tests dating back to the previous spring. They've now been in harness for nine months and 11 matches, in which time they have won ten and lost one, and overseen a cultural revolution within the team's ranks.
But how have these XI performances matched up against each other, and to what degree have they epitomised the team's ineffable mind-trick, colloquially known as "Bazball"? Here, ESPNcricinfo attempts to rank each of these performances in terms of their Bazziness* ...

11. South Africa, Lord's - Lost by an innings and 12 runs

The first and only setback of the Stokes-McCullum regime, but can it really be described as a failure of Bazball, as such? South Africa's seam attack piled into England with such ferocity, they were scarcely given the chance to deploy their new method in the first place - hence McCullum's apparently counter-intuitive appeal to "go harder" at the end of a meek display. On an overcast first day, England were asked to bat first and set the tempo, a whole new proposition after four remarkable run-chases, and Kagiso Rabada was primed to seize on the merest hint of reticence. England's response with the ball was gutsy but, with 165 on the board, they were always fighting a losing cause. However, the sight of Stokes getting physical in an 18-over stint was a sign of his determination to dig the deepest when the going got tough.

10. South Africa, Old Trafford - Won by an innings and 85 runs

A rare example of England throttling back and coasting into a position of unassailability. South Africa blew their series lead through misguided team selection, ditching the dangerous Marco Jansen in favour of the second spinner, Simon Harmer - which in turn persuaded Dean Elgar to bat first to the visible delight of his opposite number. Despite being routed for 151, South Africa's new-ball threat remained potent as England slipped to a wobbly 43 for 3. But Stokes throttled back in a relatively old-school stand with fellow centurion Ben Foakes, to grind out a position from which there could be no escape.

9. New Zealand, Lord's - Won by 5 wickets

A priceless victory in England's first outing of the summer, and one that paved the way for everything that followed. Although a number of now-familiar tropes were on display throughout the contest - not least the sight of James Anderson bowling to six slips inside the first 30 minutes of the English summer - the new style was all a bit of a work in progress for a side which, at that stage, still hadn't won a single Test in ten months. In the end, victory was sealed through a reversion to type. As had been the case throughout 2021, Joe Root stood head and shoulders over his peers, making 115 not out in a challenging chase of 279 - the first fourth-innings hundred of his career. Meanwhile, at the other end, Stokes rode some significant luck to produce a pointedly manic half-century. Though it wasn't an obvious plan at the time, his refusal to play it safe was intended as a message to his troops.

8. New Zealand, Mount Maunganui - Won by 267 runs

For all its surface-level bombast, there remains a deeply strategic method to England's madness, as showcased during the first day-night Test of the Bazball era. As had been the case on the Pakistan tour before Christmas, England's batting tempo was a means to an end - but rather than driving towards a specific target for New Zealand to chase, Stokes' main concern was session management, to ensure that his bowlers were granted the best of the conditions under the Mount Maunganui floodlights. The policy worked a treat. England romped along at more than five an over in each innings - ludicrously, they even had to apply the handbrake second-time around after threatening to burn out before nightfall - and twice their enterprise was rewarded by a clatter of twilight wickets. Three on day one, and five on day three, as Stuart Broad, fresh from his comic turn as the "Nighthawk", embarked on one of those rampages.

7. South Africa, The Oval - Won by nine wickets

Fraught emotions swirled around The Oval following the death of Queen Elizabeth during the first-day washout. Day two was cancelled as a mark of respect, and when the match received special dispensation to continue as a three-day affair, England vowed to win it regardless in her honour … and duly wrapped up the series in a mere 909 balls, their shortest home Test in a century. South Africa were thoroughly discombobulated by the experience - they might have expected to be immune to the hosts' national tumult, but a spine-tingling rendition of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika scotched that notion. They shipped six wickets in the first hour, and were 118 all out by mid-afternoon, with a resurgent Ollie Robinson claiming 5 for 49. Most teams in England's position might then have slowed down to speed up: bat once, bat big, and go for the innings win. England, on the other hand, opted to max out on mania. They screeched to 158 all out in barely a session - securing a lead of 40 from exactly the same number of deliveries as their opponents had faced, 218 - then laid into South Africa for a second time on a wild Sunday afternoon. Left with a target of 130, Zak Crawley and Alex Lees then went loco. But for bad light, they might have chased it down that night, instead they returned for five more overs the following morning.

6. Pakistan, Karachi - Won by eight wickets

The fast-tracking of Rehan Ahmed, an 18-year-old legspinner with just three first-class appearances to his name, was quite possibly the most atypical selection in England's Test history. But it also made perfect sense within the new team environment, for not only did Rehan meet the team's needs on a spin-friendly surface, he arrived with full licence to rip his variations and settle into his work without worrying that a rank long-hop or two would see him banished to the outfield for evermore. On the contrary, that likelihood of looseness was priced into his threat, as Babar Azam discovered after holing out to midwicket to fall for 54 - for Stokes had kept a catcher in that position precisely to seize on any such lapse. A match-seizing five-for followed, whereupon Rehan was shoved up the order to No. 3 in England's run-chase, with licence to treat his Test debut as an extension of the playground. Two preposterous slogged boundaries telegraphed the glee with which England were now playing their cricket.

5. Pakistan, Multan - Won by 26 runs

Perhaps this was what McCullum had meant about "going harder" when faced with adversity … in this case, Abrar Ahmed, Pakistan's new mystery spinner, whose flicked front-of-the-hand release produced funky each-way turn and the sort of unknowable threat that had so often derailed less self-assured England line-ups. Sure enough, Abrar ripped out seven wickets on his very first day of Test cricket, but in the process he was taken at nearly a run a ball, as England lived up to their team mantra of "running towards the danger". And yet, the brains behind England's brawn was typified by the apparent rookie in their batting ranks. After chipping Abrar to mid-off on the first day for 9, Harry Brook processed his shot selection and vowed not to make the same mistake as he carried England's second innings with a brilliant 108. "If he dropped one short I was hitting him over midwicket," he said afterwards. "So it didn't really matter if it was spinning." With a taxing target of 355, Pakistan rose to the occasion in a spirited chase, but this time it was Mark Wood's turn to "go harder", with a gut-busting display of raw, raucous fast bowling to seal the series in thrilling style.

4. New Zealand, Headingley - Won by seven wickets

If the Power of Positive Thinking could ever be named as Player of the Match, then this was the game in which it played clean out of its skin. By the end of it all, New Zealand were as baffled as they were beaten - particularly after watching a debutant fast bowler, Jamie Overton, rescue England from 55 for 6 in a stand of 241 with Jonny Bairstow that was somehow inevitable and unexpected at the same time. Either side of that opus, Jack Leach twirled his way to a maiden ten-wicket haul, thanks to a captain who had more faith in his bowler than the man himself - as epitomised by Stokes' refusal to grant Leach a sweeper when the big shots started raining down, particularly from Daryl Mitchell and Tom Blundell, who made 308 runs between them across two innings. By tea on day four, they'd surely done enough to set up a consolation victory… not a bit of it. Chasing a lofty 296, England romped to 183 for 2 by the close, then wrapped things up in barely an hour on the final morning.

3. India, Edgbaston - Won by seven wickets

A proper statement victory against a team that had bullied England into submission in the 2021 leg of their Covid-interrupted series, and the most emphatic evidence yet that Stokes' men weren't joking when they said that all that truly mattered to them was that number in the fourth innings. Pick your target, a daunting 378 on this occasion, and we'll hunt it down - in a freewheeling 76.4 overs, as it happens, with Bairstow capping the season of his life with a second century in the match, and Root channelling his "inner rockstar" to riff his way to 142 not out from 173. The inevitability of the finish belied the battle that preceded it, not least in India's first innings, when Rishabh Pant blitzed a breathless 146 from 111 balls, adding 222 in 39 overs with Ravindra Jadeja. And when Jasprit Bumrah reprised his match-turning counterattack at Lord's in 2021 to carve a stunning 35 runs in a single Broad over, it seemed England had lost the plot. Hindsight, however, has backed up Stokes' insistence that, for this England team, runs conceded are an irrelevance. By focussing on those ten wickets in every innings, the rest looks after itself.

2. Pakistan, Rawalpindi - Won by 74 runs

Quite possibly England's greatest overseas Test victory, and by almost any measure the apogee of Bazball. On a dismally flat deck, in a country where they had won just two Tests out of 24 in 61 years, and even after a sickness bug had decimated the team's build-up, England made every inch of the running. Stokes opted to bat for the first time in his tenure, and his players responded with mayhem. On the first day alone, they racked up 506 for 4 in 75 overs - the batting equivalent of Usain Bolt at the Beijing Olympics - which meant that, even after batting for the best part of two days in reply, Pakistan could neither wipe off their deficit, nor take enough time out of the game to make a draw inevitable. What happened next, however, was quite remarkable. Faced with little more than a session in which to post a target that was at once tempting yet defendable, England responded with a blistering turn of speed - 264 more runs at 7.36 an over, including Brook's 87 from 65 balls, which was on course to smash England's record for the fastest hundred, until he redoubled his intensity with the declaration looming. The eventual equation was 343 in the best part of 100 overs, and it proved as perfectly weighted as a 40-foot putt for glory on the 18th. With the winter sun dipping inexorably after tea, England ripped out the final five wickets in 90 minutes, sealing the contest in the 97th over with minutes of daylight remaining.

1. New Zealand, Trent Bridge - Won by five wickets

Do you remember the first time? Even after the eye-popping feats of the past nine months, there's still been nothing to match the shock and awe of Bairstow's post-tea onslaught on this free-entry final day, as England turned on the afterburners at Trent Bridge to finish the second Test in a riot of strokeplay. "Strip it back, it's only you and the bowler there," Bairstow said afterwards in a stream-of-consciousness articulation of the Bazball manifesto (as no one within the England dressing-room would dare to call it). "Ben at the other end said 'don't even think about hitting one down [the ground], hit it into the stands … it was do or die, so you've got to do." England, remember, had conceded 553 in New Zealand's first innings, with Mitchell and Blundell seemingly putting the game out of reach in a 236-run stand. But England muscled back to parity at a then-rapid lick of 4.2 an over, before duking it out in the third innings to give themselves a shot. Their target of 299 in 72 overs ought to have been outlandish. Instead, in a fitting tribute to the white-ball methods that the Test team had so dramatically co-opted, it was sealed in exactly 50.
*At the risk of aggravating England's head coach, the phrase "Bazball" is used in this context as a convenient short-hand to describe the "new aggressive style of Test match cricket pioneered by England's head coach Brendon McCullum and captain Ben Stokes in the summer of 2022, characterised by a focus on fast-paced, calculatedly risky batting, and a commitment to a wicket-taking approach with the ball, to heighten the entertainment factor of a Test match, and to encourage positive results where possible, thereby maintaining the appeal and relevance of traditional five-day cricket in an era now dominated by the T20 format."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket