The new cricket mindset

How England found their mojo

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Cricket has always understood, in the words of Tancredi in The Leopard, that “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. For cricket, a sport renowned for its conservatism, has been conspicuously quick to embrace change.

First-class cricket spawned one-day cricket, which spawned Twenty20, which spawned the (admittedly despicable, artificial) Hundred. Even for the traditionalists, there is now a World Test Championship.

Cricket whites gave way to playing in pyjamas. Power shifted from England and Australia to India. Players can wear microphones for the television companies and even cameras in their helmets. The broadcasting rights for the Indian Premier League are sold for more, per match, than the rights for the English Premier League in football.

Now every team has several Jonties

And the change is not limited to the format of the matches, nor to the way the game runs and sells itself. For the way cricket is played — with teams constantly striving for competitive advantage — is always changing. Where once Jonty Rhodes was a rarity, seen as a freak of nature, now every team has several Jonties: brilliant fielders capable of outstretched, diving catches and direct-hit run-outs from distance. Fielders on boundaries operate in pairs, one diving beyond the boundary rope to flick the ball to their teammate to take a catch.

Batting has seen the same kind of drastic changes. Once teams struggled to sustain a run rate of five per over even in one-day games. Now the record score in a 50-over one-day international is 498 for 4. Teams do not rely on one pinch hitter at the top of the order — their entire line-ups are full of powerful batsmen. Where the sweep shot was once seen as radical, now reverse sweeps, slogs and scoops are almost ordinary.

As bat dominates ball — at least for now — it is easy to forget that bowling has also changed: wide yorkers and slower ball bouncers for quick bowlers; doosras and carrom balls for spinners. Players and teams from across the world have innovated and perfected these changes. Tillakaratne Dilshan pioneered the scoop, for example. Jos Buttler has taken T20 and one-day batting to another level. The Indian Premier League changed the game forever.

But one team in particular has been at the forefront of the change, and that is England. After winning the Twenty20 World Cup in 2010, and continuing to prosper in test match cricket, by 2015 the team was in a mess in one-day cricket. During the World Cup that year, the English were brushed aside by other teams playing a brash, aggressive brand of cricket.

Then Eoin Morgan took over the one-day captaincy and turned things around almost immediately. Under his leadership, England only narrowly lost the T20 World Cup final in 2016. By 2018, England were breaking records for the highest and fastest scores in the history of the game, trouncing Australia 5-0. And in 2019 came the ultimate triumph: four years after a humiliating World Cup defeat, World Cup triumph, as England prevailed in the most dramatic final against New Zealand at Lord’s.

This summer, Morgan handed over the white-ball captaincy to Buttler. He was suffering a poor run of form, and, always honest about what the team needed, he realised it no longer needed him. The best tribute to him was that the team he built had surpassed him in its aggressive and attacking mentality and execution. And now the test match team is doing something similar.

A new coach, Brendon “Baz” McCullum, and a new captain, Ben Stokes, have brought a new mindset to Test cricket. A team that had grown timorous, whose players’ technical deficiencies had been ruthlessly exposed by rival teams, appears transformed. In the fourth innings of the first four Tests of the summer, England successfully chased 277, 299, 296 and 378, often reaching five runs per over.

The extent to which “Bazball”, as it has become known, is very different to what has gone before is debatable. Joe Root, freed from the burden of the captaincy, for example, is batting with freedom and scoring quickly but within convention. Jonny Bairstow has played with controlled aggression, and scored heavily. The one batsman who has, perhaps, taken things too far on occasion is Stokes himself — and he has tended then to fall cheaply. Overall, though, the team has undoubtedly been given a new and clear mindset of positivity and aggression.

While the team lacks some of the classical technical skills required by Test cricket at its toughest — batsmen facing the most skilful bowlers, bowlers trying to take wickets on flat pitches — England are at least playing to the strengths of players like Bairstow, who remains one of the most destructive one-day batsmen in the world.

Sometimes it will work, and sometimes it will fail

Sometimes it will work, and sometimes it will fail. In an ideal world England would have better top order batsmen with watertight techniques that would hold up well on fast pitches in Australia or dry, turning wickets in India. And one of the less understood stories of the summer is how the Dukes balls used in both county cricket and test matches have gone prematurely soft, making life harder for bowlers. We will see what happens when that problem is rectified, and when England play overseas.

But until then, we should enjoy watching England play Bazball. The revolution might not succeed … but we will have plenty of fun watching them give it their best.

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