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The Ashes: A compelling clash of cricketing styles

The more traditional Australian tortoise won the first round in the Ashes, but can the English hare stage a comeback?

Australian captain Pat Cummins celebrates with Nathan Lyons after winning the first Ashes Test against England.
Australian captain Pat Cummins celebrates with Nathan Lyons after winning the first Ashes Test against England. (AFP)

In the famous Aesop’s fable, a hare makes fun of a tortoise during a race, takes a mid-course nap, and ends up losing. The first Test of the ongoing Ashes series between England and Australia followed that script. But the bigger race is far from over, with the second Test beginning on Wednesday. England is the hare with a new, all-action approach to Test cricket, and Australia is the proverbial tortoise, with the latter proving that slow and steady wins the race, or at least the first leg of the race.

When former New Zealand skipper Brendon McCullum took over as coach of England in June last year, he inherited a dismal legacy of 11 losses, 2 wins, and 5 draws in the previous 18 Tests. From there, in almost an exact reversal, England have won 11 Tests, lost 2, and had no draws till the Ashes began earlier this month. 

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England’s ODI side had won the 2019 World Cup with fearless cricket, giving both batsmen and bowlers the licence to fail in attack. That’s the style McCullum himself had adopted as a player and a captain. Who can forget his 158 in 73 balls in the inaugural match of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2008? Now, as a coach, he wanted the England Test side to go for blitzkrieg like its ODI team. 

In skipper Ben Stokes, he had a willing accomplice, and the two proceeded to set hoary Test truisms aside. For example, instead of seeing off the new ball, the openers would counterattack and put bowlers under pressure. And bowlers were to aim for wickets with attacking fields. “Bazball”, as this attacking form of Test cricket is fondly called, had arrived.

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From day one of the current series, this approach lived up to its billing. England won the toss and ratcheted up 393/8 at 5 an over, an uncommon run rate on the first day of a Test, let alone a series. Then the hare decided to take a nap. England declared. 

Stokes said later that it was an opportune time to “pounce” on a tired opposition. But the Aussie openers played out the six overs of play left in the day without much ado, while England sacrificed the opportunity to add 30 or more runs to the total and take firm control of the Test.

Bazball is a double-edged sword. The attacking mindset put England in winning positions time and again in the see-saw test of will between the two champion sides. But it also kept bringing Australia back in the game. 

A stark manifestation was England's first innings century-maker, Joe Root, jumping out of the crease in an attempt to hit off-spinner Nathan Lyon for a six. He ended up getting stumped, a first in his long and illustrious Test career. It’s unselfish of the former skipper to buy into the new agenda and score at nearly a run a ball. But at a finely balanced 129/3 in the second innings, did Root really need to go so far outside his zone? His overkill and the bravado of the first innings declaration meant that Australia ended up with a target of 281 with plenty of time in which to get it, instead of a more formidable 350+ score.

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Bazball is a work in progress and one of its unresolved questions is the choice of the wicketkeeper-batsman where batting gets more importance than ‘keeping. 

Jonny Bairstow missed an easy stumping off Moeen Ali when Aussie all-rounder Cameron Green hadn’t yet opened his account. Subsequently, Green’s partnership with Alex Carey resurrected the Aussie first innings. Carey too was let off twice by Bairstow, who also didn’t make a move towards Khawaja’s catch that flew between wicketkeeper and first slip, in James Anderson’s first over of the second innings. 

Bairstow scored 98 in the Test at a good clip. But was that compensation enough for the four chances he missed? England’s most accomplished wicketkeeper, Ben Foakes, can’t get into the side because he’s not as attacking a batsman as Bairstow is. 

Australian opener Usman Khawaja was the antithesis of England’s batting approach, making a century and a fifty at a snail’s pace. Commentators kept carping through the 8 hours and 16 minutes he spent at the crease, until the tortoise won the race. Khawaja’s feat was a perfect counterpoint to Bazball, underscoring the value of defence in the long form of the game. 

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The English style makes Test cricket exciting but can be hard to rein in when hard-nosed common sense is required. Stokes was brilliant in plotting the dismissals of a well-set Khawaja and the aggressive Travis Head with attacking fields. But he appeared to overthink the coup de grace, instead of using tried and tested ways for the kill.

Australia lost their eighth wicket of the second innings in the 81st over, with 54 more to get for a win. Instead of taking the new ball, Stokes had continued with part-time off-spinner Root. It proved to be an inspired call as Root caught and bowled the feisty Carey. 

But Stokes then continued with Root for another over, in which the rival skipper, Pat Cummins, smartly helped himself to two sixes. And when the new ball was eventually taken, Chris Broad shared it with Ollie Robinson instead of Anderson—a man with a tally of 686 Test wickets. For all the Bazball talk of enjoying the game and not worrying about the result, here was an instance of the skipper’s mind playing tricks on him at the crunch. 

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One is reminded of the 89-run unbroken ninth wicket stand between Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami at Lord’s in 2021, that gave India an unlikely victory over England. Root was the captain then, but the tactics were the same: Setting the field back and being predictable with bouncers instead of trusting the bowling skills of an all-time great like Anderson. Stokes had, thus, reverted to an old formula against Australia.

But hindsight is a cruel judge. We may well have been singing paeans to Stokes if he had held on to a one-handed catch from Lyon in the deep and won the game.

The Ashes series has become a clash of cricket philosophies, with Australia playing traditional Test cricket, scoring at around 3 runs an over, and England pressing the reset button. The two teams account for five of the top ten batsmen, five of the top ten bowlers, and four of the top ten all-rounders in the ICC Test rankings. That’s a lot of skill and savvy going into this reckoning of which is the best approach to Test cricket today.

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England will mull changes. One of them could be to bring in the 150+ kmph speedster Mark Wood—a surprising omission from the first Test—to blow away the Australian tail. Exciting teenage leg-spinner Rehan Ahmed, who took five wickets on debut against Pakistan in Karachi last year, may replace Moeen Ali, who is nursing a bruised finger.

On the other side, Australia will be plotting how to unravel Bazball again. Lyon did that in the first Test by foxing the hare, knowing that it would come out charging. 

We’re in for some interesting times as the race resumes with the second Test at Lord’s. Other teams around the world will also be watching how it unfolds, especially India as it starts to replace underperforming stars with exciting new talent.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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