Column | India need to adopt a Desi version of 'Bazball'

Harry Brook
England's Harry Brook en route to his hundred in the Rawalpindi Test. File photo: Reuters/Waseem Khan

Two developments of contrasting nature, which sent out different messages about the sides concerned, took place in international cricket during the week that went by. The first one took place at Rawalpindi in Pakistan, where England won a high-scoring first Test in the last session, defeating the host by 74 runs to go up 1-0 in the three-match series. The second one was the series loss suffered by India at the hands of the host Bangladesh after coming second best in the first two One-Day Internationals (ODIs).

England’s first tour of Pakistan after a gap of 17 years ran into rough weather right at the start as more than 10 players in their squad got infected by a strange virus which affected the alimentary system, leading to bouts of vomiting and diarrhoea. It was so severe that there was even talk about seeking a postponement of the match by a day or two. Fortunately the bug vanished as quickly and as mysteriously as it appeared and England announced that they were in a position to field 11 fit players on the day prior to the scheduled start.

When the game began, England skipper Ben Stokes won the toss and chose to bat on a surface that gave no assistance to bowlers. England batsmen made merry, with the openers Zak Crawley and Ben Drukket putting on 233 runs for the first wicket. Both of them struck centuries with Crawley narrowly missing out on the landmark of hitting a century before lunch (he was on 91 when this break was taken).

They were followed by Ollie Pope and Harry Brook, who both scored quick hundreds to take England to a record score of 506/4 at the close of play on the opening day. Joe Root, who was dismissed for 23, was the only batsman who failed to join in the run feast. This was the first time in the history of Test cricket that more than 500 runs were scored on the opening day while England won the unique distinction for becoming the only side in history to boast of having four century-makers at the close of the opening day.

England batsmen took more risks on the second day in their attempt to further push up the scoring rate. This resulted in a slew of rash strokes that led to the fall of the remaining six wickets in the first session itself, while adding only 151 runs to their score. In reply, Pakistan began their innings on a good note with the opening batsmen Abdullah Shafique and Imam-Ul-Haq being associated in a 225 run stand. After the duo completed their centuries, skipper Babar Azam also joined the fun to compile a superb 136. Pakistan posted a reply of 579, thus conceding a lead of 78 runs in the first innings, which came to an end during the second hour of the first session of the fourth day.

It was from this point that the match, which had given all indications of turning out to be yet another dull high-scoring draw, the likes of which Pakistani pitches are famous for, suddenly got a fresh lease of life. England batsmen carted the Pakistani bowlers all over the park to score 264 runs in 35.3 overs while losing seven wickets. They declared their second innings on the stroke of tea, leaving Pakistan a target of 343 with four sessions to go.

England players celebrate the dismissal of Pakistan's Saud Shakeel. File photo: Reuters/Tanveer Shahzad

This was a very bold move as it gave both sides an even chance of winning the Test. Scoring 343 runs in 120 overs on a pitch that had not shown any signs of breaking down was not an impossible task. Similarly the bowlers also stood a fair chance to pick up 10 wickets in the allotted time if they stuck to their job with discipline and diligence. England struck quickly to pick up two early wickets, including those of first innings centurios Abdullah Shafiqul and Babar Azam, but Pakistan held firm after that to finish the day at 80/2.

The last day’s play provided the true climax for the game as it went down to the wire keeping the supporters of both sides in a state of suspense till late evening. The Pakistan innings was held together by Saud Shakeel and Mohamed Rizwan who took the total to the vicinity of 200. Their good work was followed up by Agha Salman and Azhar Ali and as the score reached 257/5 at tea interval, many Pakistani supporters started entertaining thoughts of a victory. However, that was not to be as, immediately after the break, Ollie Robinson, bowling with the old ball, got one to reverse swing prodigiously to trap Salman in front of the wicket. Azhar departed soon afterwards, when his uppish flick off Robinson was held by Root at leg slip. The England attack smelt blood and started firing on all cylinders at the hapless Pakistani tailenders to snuff out two more wickets. A stubborn resistance by the last-wicket pair of Naseem Shah and Mohamed Ali baulked England for almost 10 overs forcing Stokes to take the second new ball. Lef-arm spinner Jack Leach finally trapped Naseem in front of wicket to end the Pakistani resistance and trigger off celebrations in the England camp.

Statistics will show that this was an unusual Test which was brought to life by a brave decision by Stokes to force a result. It would not have an easy call to make as a defeat would have brought the critics out in droves. A closer look at the proceedings during the game would show that this declaration was only a logical extension of the bold cricket that England had played right from the commencement of the match. Scoring in excess of 500 runs in a day was an achievement by itself but it masked the fact that England scored at 6.57 per over in the first innings. In the second innings, England threw caution to the winds as they ran up 264 runs at a run rate of 7.36. Scoring runs at this brisk pace, which would have created envy even in white-ball cricket, showed the positive and attacking spirit with which England approached the game. And they deserved to win this match solely on account of this attitude.

England cricket has been on a roll ever since Brendon McCullum took over as coach of the national side and Stokes replaced Root as the captain. The concept of 'Bazball', wherein batsmen are encouraged to go for their strokes and score runs without harbouring fears about losing their wicket has revolutionised English cricket. McCullum’s theory is that a good ball which can dismiss even the best of the batsmen is round the corner and hence it is essential to make the maximum use of the run-scoring opportunities that come your way. This turns on its head the conventional cricket wisdom regarding Test cricket, which placed a premium on hogging the crease and preserving wickets. The England side embraced this approach enthusiastically and has been rewarded with a run of seven wins in eight Tests under the McCullum-Stokes regime. It is hard to believe that the same set of players had won only 1 Test out of the 17 that they played before this combination took over.

'Bazball' does not guarantee success in every match; but by removing the fear of failure from the minds of players, it helps to create an environment that builds confidence and breeds excellence. Thus, even on the rare occasions where scorecards indicate otherwise, the real winner will be the purveyors of positive cricket, who play the game without being shackled by apprehensions of failure.

Team India
India suffered narrow losses to Bangladesh in the first two ODIs. File photo: Twitter@BCCI

What message does this convey to the Indian side whose tour of Bangladesh got off to a poor start with consecutive losses in the first two ODIs, where, incidentally, the team lost after holding the upper hand and victory was in sight. Was it just plain bad luck or a lack of “killer Instinct”? Or is a change in the basic mindset of the squad required? One feels that it will not be a bad idea for Rahul Dravid and the Indian think tank to consider a Desi version of 'Bazball' and free their minds from the fetters of conservatism and “play safe” approach that has bogged the side down in recent times. Unless such changes are rung in quickly, the dream of repeating the 2011 triumph in the ICC World Cup 2023 will remain a mirage.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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