Bazball: The Inside Story of a Test Cricket Revolution
By Lawrence Booth and Nick Hoult
Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1526672087
352pp.

Every few years, a phenomenon emerges that impacts cricket and those associated with it. In the days of Sir Don Bradman, there was the infamous Bodyline tactic, where pacers targeted batters’ bodies rather than the wickets; in the 1970s, World Series Cricket revolutionised the sport with play under lights and in colourful uniforms; and in the 1990s, Sri Lanka launched the innovative pinch-hitting movement up the order.

After three decades, ‘Bazball’ — named after former New Zealand cricketer Brendan (‘Baz’) McCullum — has made spectators fall in love again with Test Cricket, which was said to be moving towards a ‘slow’ death.

Cricket writers Lawrence Booth and Nick Hoult simplify the latest phenomenon through their new book, Bazball: The Inside Story of a Test Cricket Revolution. In their opinion, Bazball helped Test cricket reclaim its title as the premier format of the game.

The book explains the method behind the madness known as Bazball, and the various factors that helped transform England from a side that had previously won only one match out of their 17 Tests, into a world-beating team that is now feared by all.

A new book comprehensively traces the phenomena of Bazball, which has helped make Test cricket exciting again

While the rest of the world was still viewing Test Cricket as the slowest format, for England’s head coach ‘Baz’ McCullum and captain Ben Stokes, it provided the opportunity to break the shackles and show the world that the two-innings-per-side format can be entertaining as well.

But before you move ahead, understand the psychology behind Bazball, which made it the most talked-about cricket phenomenon in recent years. It took the “batters laying a foundation” or “bowlers bowling maidens” theory by the horns and revolutionised the format by telling the batters to play their natural game, instructing the bowlers to take wickets and the fielders to save runs, pushing back the win-loss-draw issue that often dominated the minds of the players.

It was with that mentality that the Stokes-McCullum alliance went on to win 11 out of 13 Tests, before taking on rivals Australia in a dramatic Ashes contest that ended 2-2.

The Booth-Hoult duo also impresses, as their subjects did on the field, in their attempt to discover Bazball’s origin and journey. They take the readers back in time to the inception of what they believe was the original Bazball way, and trace its journey into the English dressing room, where it currently resides.

They talk to most of the cricketers who were either part of the no-holds-barred approach that champions freedom of expression or ask those who want to join the win-at-all-costs bandwagon, where losing isn’t considered an offence but treated as a learning curve.

The maiden over is one of cricket’s uniquenesses, and Australia’s bowlers pride themselves on their thrift. Day one of Ashes last year turned everything on its head | AFP
The maiden over is one of cricket’s uniquenesses, and Australia’s bowlers pride themselves on their thrift. Day one of Ashes last year turned everything on its head | AFP

The book also explains to the readers that the phenomenon has its roots in New Zealand, from where England’s New Zealand-born Captain Ben Stokes, and of course his coach McCullum hail. It discusses why Brendon McCullum was the ideal person to come up with Bazball and why no one before him thought about reinventing Test cricket.

After all, he had the perfect credentials, considering he holds the record for the fastest Test century (off 54 balls, scored in his farewell Test!), and is the only Kiwi batter to score a triple century in Tests.

Add to that his humble beginnings in South Dunedin, from where he migrated into the big leagues, mainly due to the support of his dad Stuart, who somehow knew his son was destined for greatness. The authors then connect McCullum’s story with that of Ben Stokes, who — before Bazball — had won England the ODI World Cup for the first time, but wasn’t satisfied with his career.

The authors go behind the scenes of what could have been a Ben Stokes meltdown due to his father’s death, his continuous court appearances, and the controversies surrounding his off-field antics. In short, had it not been for McCullum, Ben Stokes would have quit the game and Bazball wouldn’t have happened. Thankfully, they met before things could turn for the worse, and the rest is history.

Usually, cricket books that aren’t autobiographies, biographies or memoirs are boring to read, since they cover topics that don’t excite the readers. However, in the case of Bazball, which is an exciting phenomenon, the authors had a lot to play with.

They give equal coverage to the Test match win against India (who had earlier quit the tour in 2021 due to Covid), the series wins against New Zealand both at home and abroad, as well as the comfortable victories against South Africa and Pakistan, which were all possible because of the never-say-never attitude of the English coach and captain.

However, the Ashes series of 2023 is covered extensively in this book, which is understandable, since it was during those five matches that Bazball finally found its voice.

It was not a normal Ashes series featuring England and Australia, but an unusual one where, despite England always being on top, Australia ended up with two wins in five matches. One of the three matches ended in a rain-induced draw, while England managed to win the last two, proving that Bazball was no match for the world champions.

From the very first Josh Hazlewood delivery, which Englishman Zak Crawley dispatched for four, to retiring Stuart Broad’s final wicket in the fifth Test, the authors cover the series comprehensively for the benefit of their readers.

It might be common knowledge how Moeen Ali was asked to “unretire” for the series, but not many know what prompted Ben Stokes to call Mo back — it had more to do with IPL than English cricket. Similarly, the book details the persistent selection of Zak Crawley and Jonny Bairstow, the non-selection of the better gloveman Ben Foakes, the rotation policy that caught Australia by surprise and, of course, Alex Carey’s controversial stumping of Bairstow.

Every player who spoke to the authors had good things to say about McCullum’s aggressive attitude and Ben Stokes’ tactics, which steered England from the low points of the previous Ashes series and defeat in the Caribbean to wins against sides that might have done well against the old English team. The regime change didn’t do the opposition any favours but changed how English cricket was viewed globally.

Booth and Hoult also explain that Bazball isn’t limited to batters; the concept is applied also to bowlers, who are encouraged to take wickets without worrying about the runs. Yes, many of the game’s pundits, who also spoke to the authors for this book, believed that going rudderless would hurt English cricket, but even they had to praise the phenomenon once the results came in England’s favour.

Some still believe that not going for a specialist wicket-keeper is a chink in Bazball’s armory, but Jonny Bairstow’s resurgence has temporarily put that debate to rest.

The authors end the book with the Ashes series which ended last July, and leave a lot for debate, such as the impact of Bazball on county cricket, on other teams (they mention Pakistan!), and whether it will be sustainable in the coming years. However, the statistics that succeed the 13 chapters show that Bazball is here to stay, since it has helped Test Cricket more than any other phenomenon in the last 100 years.

If you want to know how Bazball transformed England’s fortunes, why it is being adopted by other countries, and how it is being viewed outside England, this book is your best bet. Through a mixture of interviews with the for-Bazball and the anti-Bazball crowd, the authors have developed a cricket book that will be remembered for a long time, maybe for as long as the subject of their research.

The reviewer is a broadcast journalist who also writes on sports, film, television and popular culture. X: @omair78

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 16th, 2024

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