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Artillery Row

The passage from India

The failings of Bazball, like the failings of Britain, are becoming more apparent

Quite possibly, Anthony Stanislaus de Mello (1900-1961) has not impinged greatly on your consciousness. A businessman from Karachi, he was the first Secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. As is inevitable with Indian cricket administrators, he had the reputation of being a dictator and duly had something important named after him. He is commemorated in the trophy contested by England teams touring India.

So much for Bazball, eh?

More likely, you will be aware that India have just won that series — and unsurprised that they retained the Anthony de Mello Trophy by giving England a 4-1 drubbing. England lost the Third Test by the second-highest run margin in their history.

So much for Bazball, eh? Cue recriminations and sniping. But just how bad a tour was this?

In the last ten years, India have played fourteen Test series at home, against seven sides. The Tourists have lost every time, none winning more than one Test. The tally would have been 15-0 to India if the West Indies team had not refused to play and gone home over a pay dispute in 2014. Since 1951, England have only won three tours out of fifteen, with three series drawn. This is not an English failing. Over the same period, Australia have only won on four visits, and three of those were before 1970. Touring sides almost always lose in India.

Hence, it is a measure of how good England once were that Alistair Cook’s team in 2012 was able to come back from being made to follow-on and lose the First Test to win the series 2-1. That was the first successful tour of India by England in 28 years. We are not due another one until 2040.

Cook was blessed with two spinners, Swann and Panesar, at the top of their game, and slightly better than their counterparts. But bowling was not the decisive factor. Over four Tests, both sides claimed more or less the same number of scalps (England took 58 wickets; India 57). Both sides scored runs at about the same rate, a shade under 3 per over, pedestrian by today’s standards.

What decided the series was that England batsmen were able to stay in for longer. Their wickets averaged out at 14.4 overs each as against India’s 11.3, and an average innings lasted for 105 overs as opposed to 95. Batsmen who were set tended to score heavily, producing a higher average per wicket (40.6 runs versus 33.8). England had four of the five highest individual run totals for the series, with six centuries against India’s four. They scored appreciably more runs in aggregate (2,314 over 1,959). In the most anti-Bazball manner possible, England opted to grind out the final day of the last Test boringly, to secure a draw and win the series, rather than attempt anything ambitious.

A better comparator for England’s 2024 debacle is their 2021 debacle. In both cases, England won the First Test fairly impressively, before proceeding to collapse throughout the rest of the series, with India not requiring a second innings in the last Test — the only difference being that this time there was an extra match. Eight of the players fielded by England played in both series, as did seven of the Indians.

After the oddities of a COVID Summer, and a comprehensive trouncing of Sri Lanka, the scale of the 2021 defeat in India came as an unpleasant shock. It presaged a disappointing summer at home, followed by an embarrassing flop in Australia, then the humiliation of a bungled “red ball reset” against the West Indies. What we call “Bazball” is supposedly a response to such underperformance. So, there is some interest in comparing pre- and post-Bazball regimes against India.

Although it may not have looked that way from the pavilion, in terms of the aggregate figures, in the 2021 series the two sides were much closer than in 2012, and neither performed as well as their predecessors. England’s combined 1,587 runs was not much short of India’s 1,703. Their bowlers actually took more wickets than in 2012 (60) at a brisker rate (one every 8.3 overs) and a cheaper cost (28.4 runs each, instead of 33.8). Both sides averaged out at about the same length for a complete innings: 73 overs for India; 70 for England.

The problem was that England’s batsmen could not cope with the spin bowling of Ashwin and Axar Patel. Their average score (19.8) was half what it had been in 2012. India’s batsmen scored faster than England’s (3.3 runs per over versus 2.8) and survived for slightly longer. India had an edge, and did just enough to win, but no more.

This year, England took 79 wickets which, allowing for the extra match, was fractionally better than 2021. It required more time to take them (on average, 11.2 overs), but only as long as in 2012. Unfortunately, Indian wickets were much more expensive, at 39.7 runs each. India scored at about the same rate as before (3.5 per over), but because each innings survived for on average 100 overs, across the series they amassed a crushing 3,140 runs, which included 7 centuries (of which 2 were double-hundreds). India were much better in 2024 than in 2021.

There were too many instances where England created an opening … then frittered it away

England scored altogether 2,563 runs. That is a massive improvement on 2021. However, as a response to an even-more improved India, it was still sub-par. It is also below the standard of the boring, anti-Bazballing 2012 team. England managed only three centuries. Their batsmen scored markedly more quickly (4.1 per over) but also got out markedly more quickly (every 6.1 overs). They fell for a somewhat better average than in 2021 (25.6 runs each), but an innings only lasted about 62 overs. Credit has to be given to a superb Indian bowling attack, but there were too many instances where England created an opening to repeat their triumph of the First Test, then frittered it away. What is particularly dismaying is that, with the various absences of Pant, KL Rahul and (briefly) Jadeja due to injury, and Kohli for family reasons, England were effectively facing the Indian 2nd XI.

To the extent that a theory underlies “Bazball”, more than a simple positive mindset, it appears to be that aggressive fast scoring, besides being more entertaining for player and spectator, will disorientate an opposition and create more time for the bowlers to dismiss them. The flaw is that if the opponents can keep their heads, wait for England batsmen to get themselves out, and then bat solidly for 90 overs, they will accumulate more runs against an increasingly exhausted bowling attack, and so win.

That flaw has been discovered separately, possibly by accident, by the two leading cricketing sides in the world: Australia last year and now India.

So, the shelf life of Crude Bazball is very limited. In India, it did not even work on its own terms. In this last series, 713 boundaries were struck (611×4; 102×6), compared to 403 in 2021 (360×4; 43×6).  Unfortunately, two-thirds of them were scored by Indians, because they spent two-thirds of the time at the crease. Nobody can hit a six when they are back in the pavilion. Yes, it really is very entertaining to watch the ball go crash, bang, wallop to the boundary on a regular basis. But wouldn’t it be nicer to watch England win over five days, instead of going crash, bang, wallop to defeat in three?

What we need is “Boycott Bazball”. This England side is perfectly capable of achieving it.  Their 3-0 victory over Pakistan in 2023, the first time any tourists had gained a clean sweep in that country, breaking a clutch of batting records, involved much patient shot selection and sharp singles, not just frenetic slogging. Their drawing of last year’s Ashes stemmed from an unadmitted adoption of more measured batting after they had thrown away the first two Tests.

This England management also has the happy knack of finding new talent, or coaxing old talent into a more suitable role. Quite possibly, one of the spinners they have unearthed could become a genuine world-beater. What they need to unearth now is the other talent that the England team of 2012 possessed, someone like Alistair Cook or Jonathan Trott who can bat all day while the crash, bang, wallop merchants work around him. It shouldn’t be too difficult.  They just have to persuade Joe Root to play the way he did before Bazball came along.

What, then, do we make of Bazball? On the evidence of two years, we can agree with its advocates that it has invigorated England cricket, and with its detractors that it is fraught with self-indulgent disaster. Bazball is both better and worse than it is claimed to be: undeniably clever, and more than mere marketing spin, but it is still unclear how much substance there is to it.

Which makes it the perfect image of our country at this time.

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