Six batsmen made more runs than Ben Stokes’s 870 last year; 33 among the top 50 had better averages, five stood above him in strike rates. He had 26 wickets too, 13th in the list. A middling year for the England captain, you might say. Yet, for me, he was the Cricketer of the Year, giving us promise of a rejuvenated form of Test cricket. In the process he elevated himself to a position occupied by a handful — as a significant captain.
Two questions arise in the new year from England’s remarkable success under Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum (nine wins from ten matches, no draws). Will other countries attempt to emulate England’s strategy of quick scoring, positive cricket and thus bring the crowds back into the stadiums? The excitement of short-format cricket spread over five days was always a fantasy; now Stokes has shown how it can be done. He and his men are carrying Test cricket into the modern age.
The second question is about sustainability. Can England continue in this manner consistently? Have England and Stokes put themselves under too much pressure to play a type of cricket that does not guarantee success at all times (even if it guarantees excitement)?
In Australia, Steve Smith said, “I am intrigued to see how long it lasts,” while David Warner said their team will be playing ‘Ronball’, a reference to Australia’s head coach Andrew Macdonald who is known as ‘Ron’.
‘Bazball’, named after McCullum whose nickname is ‘Baz’ is cricket’s word of the year. A mindset and a specific set of skills have to come together for it to work. In Pakistan, the graveyard of positive cricket, England discovered they had both the batting (Harry Brook made three centuries in the three Tests all of which England won), and the bowling to rewrite history. Before Stokes, they had won just one Test in 17.
Coaches aver that a team should adapt a system to suit the talent available. You cannot squeeze players into a system if they don’t have the skill or aptitude for it. England have shown that perhaps – just perhaps – the system, or the philosophy can be worked out first, and then the players selected. It is a gentle revolution (revolutions in cricket tend to be gentle).
No individual has contributed to this as much as Stokes has, not just batting or bowling, but in his creative field placings and bowling changes too. A defeat is not the end of the world, he seemed to be saying, if it comes while charging on the road to victory. This infuses the team with an energy and spirit that raises the game above the routine.
Test cricket needs all the help it can get against the marauding T20 tournaments, and the McCullum-Stokes combo showed how a five-day game can match shorter formats for excitement.
What of India in this brave new world? Does ‘Dravidball’ (which sounds better than ‘Rahulball’) lay as much emphasis on the process as the product? Indian cricket has believed for some time now that if the process is worked on, the product will take care of itself. I think it originated with M S Dhoni, or perhaps earlier, with Anil Kumble.
India lost Tests and the series in South Africa, and the lone Test in England (carried over from 2021), while four captains led in seven matches. Two wins apiece against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh suggested they were still the best in Asia, something they will count on when Australia arrive next month for four Tests with the possibility that these two teams might make it to the final of the World Test Championship.
A former player has said that Bazball “is not in our DNA.” For India at least, winning continues to be more important than the manner in which victory is achieved. Fear of failure, something that England have worked at eliminating, continues to rule in India, perhaps understandably given the reaction to defeat at home.
This will be an interesting year for Test cricket, given the glimpses into the possible we were given last year. India could show too that there is more than one way to win a Test match.