The Ashes has started with a bang. The cliffhanger at Edgbaston had everything that engrossed fans in this age of rapid Twenty20s. Test cricket surely got a boost as Pat Cummins’ Australia with grit and some luck got the better of Bazball-ing England in the end.

Ashes and no controversy? Not in this world. The brief tiff between Usman Khawaja and Ollie Robinson who dismissed and gave the Australian centurion in Birmingham an incendiary send-off, and the England pacer’s subsequent statement implicating Ricky Ponting has gathered some attention.

Former Australian skipper Ponting has responded firmly.

“He [Robinson] will learn pretty quickly that if you’re going to talk to Australian cricketers in an Ashes series, then you want to be able to back it up with your skills,” Ponting said on an ICC Review Podcast on Wednesday.

“This England cricket team hasn’t played against Australia and they’ll find out pretty quickly what playing Ashes cricket and playing against a good Australian team is all about.”

These words by the 168-Test legend need consideration, at least some, after what happened in the Edgbaston Test which also marked one year of Bazball, a predominantly aggressive style of play introduced by Brendon McCullum after becoming England’s Test head coach in May last year.

Has Bazball taken a serious jolt after the Birmingham thriller?

McCullum has absolutely no qualms about the novel mode which is fully backed by Ben Stokes, who was named England skipper when the former New Zealand captain joined as head coach.

“We firmly believe, the skipper [Stokes] and I, that this [Bazball] gives us our greatest chance [to win],” the coach said after the Edgbaston Test.

Only time will tell whether Bazball will benefit England in the remaining Ashes.

Australia, on their part, showed in Birmingham why they are the world Test champions after humbling a full-strength Indian team in the WTC decider at The Oval earlier this month.

The way Australia handled Bazball-embracing England on their turf for the first time proved the tourists are very much ready for the unique test.

Resolutely leading from the front, skipper Cummins perhaps played the most precious cameo of his career at the most crucial juncture — featuring aggression and vigilance — when the chips were down. Nathan Lyon’s unbeaten 16 with the skipper during the tension-filled final hour was as priceless as his eight scalps.

Teamwork was their hallmark. When the likes of Steve Smith, David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne flopped, Khawaja stood up and dazzled in both the innings. Alex Carey and Travis Head chipped in. All this makes it evident that Cummins and company have dependent lieutenants other than the main cogs of their playing XI.

England with the innovative Stokes-McCullum combination overpowered New Zealand, South Africa and India at home and made a 3-0 whitewash of Pakistan at their territory before drawing a series in New Zealand at their venues.

However, facing an Australian team in the Ashes requires a totally different proposition.

Steely by nature, Aussies play hard, take challenges head-on and generally raise their game in top-shelf encounters. A plain reason for their upper hand in the last three Ashes series (4-0 wins in 2017-18 and 2021-22, Australia; 2-2 draw in 2019, England).

England eventually would have come out with flying colours at Edgbaston — with Australia on the ropes at 227-8 — had Stokes not dropped Lyon, but that was not to be.

If England are to make a comeback in the Ashes, and that while sticking to Bazball, it would certainly be a herculean task requiring some sort of soul searching, though the ‘devastated’ Stokes and McCullum remain positive and have obdurately declared there would not be any change in their approach.

How much the England camp care about regaining the Ashes and how much they like to think about “leaving everyone entertained” by Bazball, as McCullum said on Wednesday, will be a very interesting comparison during the coming weeks.

Stokes and company showcased Bazball at Lord’s against New Zealand which helped England, known for their long held traditional stance in cricket, bloom in an innovative fashion.

But the hosts in all probability will definitely face a tough challenge when the charged up Aussies enter the game’s headquarters for the second Test starting there on June 28.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2023

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