LONDON: The completion of England 3-0 series Success against Pakistan on Tuesday was the latest chapter in a remarkable revival, all the more extraordinary for the dismal run of red-ball results that preceded the ‘Bazball’ era.
Inflicting the first domestic whitewash suffered by Pakistan in Test history, courtesy of an eight-wicket win at Karachi on Tuesday, was striking enough in itself.
It also gave England their ninth win in 10 matches at this level, with World Test champions New Zealand, India and South Africa also among the losers, as Captain Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum took charge in May.
When they joined forces, however, England had won just one of their previous 17 Tests.
So how to explain the breathtaking turnaround?
The answer begins in April, when the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) appointed Rob Key, a former England batsman with a modest Test record, as its new director of cricket.
The 43-year-old man, a former television expert, has since seen his judgment confirmed on several occasions.
As New Zealand captain, McCullum provided the model for England’s resurgence in cricket over 50 which culminated in their victory in the 2019 World Cup final.
Key backed him to have a similar impact on the Test side when he named him as a permanent replacement as coach Chris Silverwood was sacked after England’s 4-0 thrashing in Australia.
The versatile star Stokes, 31, shortly after a mental health hiatus, replaced close friend Joe Root as England captain, with the exceptional batsman exhausted leading a losing side playing under severe COVID restrictions .
“Get Ready for the Ride”
Many observers noted how the form of England all-rounders Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff had plummeted during their unsuccessful spells as Test captains.
Nonetheless, Key, preferring his opinion to the weight of history, said, “I believe in Brendon and Ben Stokes… It’s time for all of us to buckle up and get ready for the ride.”
And what a journey to date, with Stokes and McCullum capitalizing on the feel-good vibe created by the end-of-life “bubble”.
In the new environment, players are encouraged to enjoy cricket and not fear failure.
England’s attacking approach, dubbed ‘Bazball’ in honor of McCullum’s nickname, although he dislikes the term, has been based on aggressive scoring which gives bowlers time to take the 20 wickets needed to win a test.
McCullum has made progress in the limited overs scoring – showcased in England’s recent T20 World Cup win under white ball coach Matthew Mott – can be applied to Test cricket.
This expanded range of strokeplay, combined with classic shooting, saw England become the first team to score 500 points on the first day of a Test when Zak Crawley, rising stars Harry Brook and Ollie Pope, and Ben Duckett all made hundreds at the opening of the Pakistani series in Rawalpindi.
England’s new attitude is also evident in Stokes’ willingness to risk losing a game in pursuit of a win.
In Rawalpindi, Stokes’ bold declaration, which left Pakistan needing 343 to win in four sessions, was rewarded with victory shortly before bad light threatened to end the game.
England’s willingness to challenge its traditional conservatism was also on display when 18-year-old Rehan Ahmed became the youngest Test debutant of any country to take five wickets in one leg in the Karachi final.
Stokes also proved himself to be a shrewd man-manager, reinvigorating quick veterans James Anderson and Stuart Broad, while giving a much-needed boost of confidence to left-arm spinner Jack Leach.
Did England change Test cricket? Maybe not, but former captain Michael Atherton, noting how the current England team’s approach had been met with skepticism at every turn, wrote in The Times on Tuesday that Stokes’ men had won in Pakistan by “playing with more verve and attacking intent than any team in England, surely, ever did”.
For some, the litmus test remains next year’s Ashes series at home to arch-rivals Australia.
Stokes acknowledges that winning makes it easier for England to “have fun” and is doing his best to avoid doubters.
“The real test will be when things don’t go so well,” he said. “And it will be the time to make this (pleasure) even more important for us. But hopefully it won’t come to that.”
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