Death of a Strategy? The Curious Case of ‘Bazball’ in India

Not far from one of the world’s most beautiful cricket grounds, nestled high up in the Himalayas at Dharamshala, is the abode of the Dalai Lama. Among the visitors these past months who came to seek his blessings were Kane Williamson and his New Zealand teammates. Sadly, the brutality of Travis Head’s willow proved the more powerful force three days later when they met Australia at the World Cup.

Five months on, England arrives at the HCA stadium, 1-3 down in a Test series once widely billed as the final frontier for Bazball.

It is not known if England’s very own Kiwi, Brendon ‘Baz’ McCullum, will seek an audience for his boys with Buddhism’s greatest living spiritual leader. With the series already lost, the frontier remains unconquered, and the window for spiritual intervention is well and truly closed. But the great man’s guidance to achieve Nirvana may well be what his team needs at the moment.

The truth is that Bazball is not at the dizzying heights of its popularity as it was just a few months ago. Purists are basking in its humbling. ‘It had to happen’, they have been heard to say. An upstart approach that seeks to turn the traditional Test format on its head? ‘The ill-conceived experiment’, they gleefully add, ‘has died a predictable death’.

But has it?

Back in London, almost a hundred years before Brendon McCullum or Ben Stokes were conceived, Mark Twain, then on a speaking tour, was the victim of a rumour of ill health. When a reporter for the New York Journalchecked on the rumours, Twain wrote back with typical wit: ‘I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. The report of my death was an exaggeration.’

And so it would appear are the rumours of Bazball’s untimely demise.

What IS Bazball really?

Let’s recognise something at the outset as we start to unpack the question of whether the India loss sounds the death knell of Bazball. What the McCullum and Stokes duo have put together is a strategy. Like any strategy, it is a plan for a new future. By definition therefore, a strategy is long term. Its efficacy and fulfilment, however,  lies in how it is executed in the short term.

But what really is ‘Bazball’? It is a term that Brendon McCullum publicly despises, and, one suspects, secretly cherishes. It was never meant to be a strategy solely reliant on mindless hitting unmindful of the circumstances. That is merely the interpretation fans and pundits alike have assigned to it. Be that as it may, why Bazball is important is that at the core of the actual strategy, is a complete reinvention of the approach to Test cricket.

In a recent article, The Economist describes the first day of Test cricket as it has been played for almost 150-years: ‘The team batting first will start cautiously while the ball is new and thus more likely to swing through the air (because of the shine) and bounce more steeply (because of the hardness of both the ball and the pristine pitch). By the end of the first day, having faced perhaps 90 overs, or sets of six balls, they will have done well to score 300 runs.’

In fact, the average scoring rate of teams since 1877 (when the first official Test match was played) is 3.5. Ours is a world that is increasingly short of patience, with fans gravitating towards the shortest format of the sport. The easiest way to kill off the format, McCullum believes (and rightly so), is to play Test cricket in the same manner as before.

The pace of the game has to be upped, fans have to be kept riveted to their seats, and those who had moved away from Test cricket, and indeed the millennials and Gen X who largely chose to skip the format altogether, have to be enticed into embracing it alongside the T20.

But how does one do that?

Baz McCullum, in his tenure as captain of New Zealand, had, for a time, adopted this approach and reinvented the way the Kiwis played as a team. It was Bazball V1.0. With the limited number of Tests New Zealand plays, the sample canvas was rather small. With the English team that alongside Australia and India, plays more Test cricket than most others,  McCullum had his chance as a first time coach to demonstrate that this approach could become a sustainable framework.

‘Bazball’ the Strategy

The task was far from being an easy one. He was undertaking to turn around the fortunes of a team that had won just once in 17 previous outings. Its confidence was at an all-time low. But the Kiwi, thrives on challenges. Like any good leader in his first meeting with the team, McCullum laid out his strategy clearly and unequivocally.

The problem with most strategies whether they be corporate or in sports is that they fail to get implemented, despite the ample efforts of hard-working people. It is usually because they do not represent a set of clear choices.

A good strategy does not make that error. It defines what the firm (or in this case the cricket team) is going to do and what it’s notgoing to do. Bazball, to its credit, laid that out unequivocally.

Attack would be their best form of defence, was the basis of the thinking. But that by itself, McCullum knew, was not enough. In  addition, there were 7 pillars of success that his team needed to buy into, if they wanted to be a world beating team:

  1. An environment that breeds forward thinking, without focusing on the past
  2. NO Negative Talk
  3. A Winning Mentality
  4. NO fear of failure
  5. Plenty of Praise – even for the little things
  6. Simplicity of messaging
  7. Embracing Mental Freedom and Having Fun

It was music to new captain Ben Stokes’ ears – exactly the brand of cricket he wanted to play. It was Stokes’ grit, determination, and fearlessness that had won England the 2019 World Cup and Ashes series in a single summer. Now he had the licence to allow his whole team to play the same way. The buy-in from the team to the strategy was swift. The details, McCullum and Stokes knew, would lie in the execution. So they prepared the way they deemed best.

And therein lies the twist in the tale.

What Went Wrong in India?

Over the past two years the surfaces where Bazball has been tried, have either been flat tracks, or pacy, bouncy pitches. While England has not won every series, the strategy has been largely successful. Indeed, until India, there has been no challenge that has required a rethinking of the basic approach. And at that final hurdle, England has fallen short. The question is why?

A Gartnerreport published in 2023 reveals that 61% of corporate strategists agree poor execution is the reason that most new strategies fail.

It is indeed a fact that  top down strategy will only be effective if, at the same time, you enable your employees to create bottom-up initiatives that fall within the boundaries set by that strategic intent.

When Wal-Mart first moved in to Brazil, it tried to lay down terms with suppliers in the same way it does in the U.S., where it carries huge weight in the market. Suppliers simply refused to play, and the company was forced to reevaluate its strategy. One of the main reasons this failure happened was that both strategy and execution were dictated top down. Adaptation to ground realities was not a part of the implementation blueprint.

In much the same way, England’s belief that hitting the Indian spinners out of the attack was the mantra to winning the series, was a matter of imposing execution in India of an approach that has worked on vastly different surfaces against inferior quality of spinners. After the initial ‘shock and awe’ effect, it was bound to fail, particularly when the batters could not carry that execution through as a continual process.

Another reason many implementation efforts fail is that they usually involve top down efforts to change people’s habits.

Habits in both corporate organizations and teams are notoriously sticky and persistent. They certainly don’t get changed by telling people in a town hall or team meeting that they should act differently. In fact, this confuses them into often substituting what has always worked well for them and got them to this stage, with what they perceive the strategy demands of them.

A case in point is the now infamous Joe Root reverse scoop against Jasprit Bumrah.

England was cruising along at 224 for 2 at Rajkot, and it is fair to assume that they were on the way to an unassailable total that would have won the match.

Inexplicably, Root attempted an uncharacteristic, and wholly unnecessary reverse scoop off the No.1 bowler in the world – Jasprit Bumrah, and holed out to slip. England collapsed and eventually lost the match. Criticism of Root’s shot caused a meltdown on social media.

Joe Root hit back at his critics: ‘People will have their own opinions on how I’ve got out throughout this series and what’s best for me. I’ll continue to play the way I think is best for any given situation. No one knows my game as well as I do. The reason I’ve got to where I’ve got to is because I’ve always looked to improve.’

Joe Root is one of the best batsmen in the world. His brand of Test batting easily compares to the best the sport has seen. Most importantly, like Virat Kohli, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson, he possesses the ability to accelerate almost at will, playing the most exquisite cricketing shots that have a far greater success percentage. The fact that he had tried the reverse scoop and succeeded on various other occasions was hardly relevant given the surface, the bowler, and the match situation, none of which warranted the shot at the time. His execution on this occasion thus raises the bigger question about whether the adoption of the reverse scoop is really a part of his “improvement” as a batsman.

Another is Ollie Pope. His  disintegration as a batter against quality spin bowling after playing a match winning innings at the start of the tour, is simply staggering.

Pope’s success came by attacking the spinners, and disrupting their line and length. And yet in subsequent innings he reverted back to what he thought was a more appropriate way to play spin – circumspect, watchful, and even defensive. And that drew him hook, line and sinker into the trap set by the Indian spinners. Inconsistency and confusion triumphed execution.

It is these batting failures at the execution level in India these past weeks that has thrown open the debate about the strategy that drives England’s approach to Test cricket. But it should not. For all the blame for England’s series loss actually does not rest on just execution by its batters.

India has been the most difficult place in the world to win a Test series since Laxman and Dravid pulled off their miracle at Eden Gardens. Seventeen straight home series victories is testimony to that. The last series loss, it is worth noting, came against England.

In 2012, Alastair Cook’s team beat India at their own game by deploying two quality spinners – Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar who outspun Indian spinners, while Cook and the batters played spin competently and traditionally, without resorting to Bazball tactics. It is the combination that brought success.

Notwithstanding the failure of its batsmen in adapting to alien conditions, the real culprit in the 2024 debacle has been the ECB itself. The game’s administrators are destroying the English domestic system from within through a sorry combination of hubris and indifference.

It was in England that Bosanquet invented the googly. She gave the world Verity, one of the greatest left-arm spinners of all time. The nation once boasted of Laker, Locke, Underwood and Swann.

And yet today, other than Somerset, no English county plays a spinner in its first XI on a regular basis. Nor does another county provide a pitch that even on the final day does not drive a spinner to contemplate suicide. English selectors are forced to pick a 19-year old on the basis of a second division match that the captain of the national team just happens to catch on television.

The young inexperienced spinners England brought on this tour have bowled with enormous heart and some skill. They have taken over 40 Indian  wickets between them. But with less than 20 first class matches between them before this series, it was a bridge too far for them to spin England to a series victory by themselves.

What is more, despite their outstanding performance, none of the three can realistically expect to be a part of a county first XI when the championship starts this summer. Nothing can be more morale sapping for the young men.

Until the ECB stops destroying the dreams of generations of spinners, England will not have a well balanced XI able to win in different conditions. And winning a series in India will undoubtedly remain a pipe dream.

Don’t blame McCullum and Stokes. And certainly don’t blame Bazball for this series loss. Moving away from the approach today would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water as was always a fear in mediaeval England.

It needed a miracle more than a strategy for England to win this series in India. Walking on water, sadly, has been out of style for over two millennia now.

Broadcast Schedule

England v West Indies 2024
ENG v WI 2nd Test, Trent Bridge
18th July to 22nd July
Start time: 11:00 am BST
ENG v WI 3rd Test, Edgbaston
26th July to 30th July
Start time: 11:00 am BST