There has been much hype about this Ashes series, hype which has laid fingertips on chaos. Armed with a rhetoric fuelled by ‘Bazball’ and statements which verge on hyperbole, it has been earmarked as the series of the century, or at least since 2005. Without a ball being bowled, we were bombarded with grand theories which labelled it as a clash of sporting philosophies, unearthing the deepest qualities of test cricket and offering them to the gods as repentance for dwindling crowds and short-format fever.
Yet we now find ourselves on the eve of the second test, 1-0 down and threatened by the prospect of a series which collapses pathetically into Australian hands before it is fully played out. It is not even July yet. The first test was a worthy iteration, no doubt. But amid the noise we are in danger of losing sight of what we actually want: an English victory. It is also what we need – we can’t afford to draw like the tourists, who have deserved that luxury through outplaying us in each of the last three series.
The clear sense of urgency feels somewhat lost, though, beneath our new persona. The reaction to the first test has felt unnervingly like that one might expect when a newly promoted football team loses 4-3 on the opening day of the season. McCullum has since stated that the way they went about the first test has “validated their style of play”. There is a sense of carefree buoyancy, that we are at the beginning of a long process, that boldness outweighs defeat and that we will eventually be rewarded as long as we make bold decisions. But this is the Ashes and there are 5 games, not 38. More importantly, this is England, not Luton Town. And each time we lose, Australia win.
The optimists are also ignoring the fact that the decisions made in the first test were not bold but unequivocally wrong. It is hardly inventive to cite the declaration as a serious mistake. But I’d like to hammer it home once more before the second test begins, given the popular consensus that England’s spasmodic system can be forgiven on account of entertainment. There have been calls to ‘keep the faith’, but faith is elusive when the doctrines are faulty.
Let us cast our minds back once more. Joe Root is not out on 118 alongside a comfortable Ollie Robinson. Root has just hit Lyon for two sixes in an over and they take 20 from it. The reasons for ploughing on are endless: the first innings on the first day of the first test, as good a batting track as you’ll find on these shores, the no.1 test batsman in the world at the height of his powers, the run rate creeping over 5.00 and the total approaching 400 (but, crucially, not there yet). Not to mention the small matter that the opposition boasts a batting lineup as formidable as any in the world. Since when has it been acceptable to declare under such circumstances?
Of course, these are blunt terms, and we have the benefit of hindsight. One could argue that had we taken the scalp of either of Australia’s openers in that half-hour we might be looking at a different test match and a lauding Stokes’s raised hand as the symbol of a cricket-flavoured revolution. Yet the risk outweighed the reward at every point. We were always going to need the runs we would have got that evening, whether then or later in the test. Had we had something close to 450 on the board the actual and psychological task facing Australia would have been totally different. I doubt Khawaja would have been able to show the same poise, for instance.
What is most concerning, though, is the decision has been rationalised as part of an ethos. More than just a tactical faux pas, it was borne out of the arrogance of the Bazball brand. It is the second test in a row which England have lost after declaring when 8 wickets down in the first innings. Surely they would have learned their lesson or, at the very least, exercised some restraint given the occasion?
Indeed, England have become so consumed with Bazball that they are making decisions for the sake of shock. Unexpected decisions might be engaging, but they should not come at the expense of common sense. They only puts the opposition on the backfoot momentarily. Bold cricket should be distinguished from foolish cricket – it requires aggression and discernment in equal measure. Our obsession with the former is undermining the latter. A further example came in the 2nd innings when Root threw his wicket away, stumped for the first time in his first-class career having cruised to 46. Another moment in which aggression overspilled into brashness. Another turn upon which the test slowly crept into Australia’s hands. Ironically, through seemingly ‘bold’ decisions, England showed little ruthlessness.
I find it difficult to watch Brendon McCullum sat on the balcony, sunglasses on and perpetually chewing gum, and not think that he is slowly grinding this test side into a franchise which throws away games for the sake of making a point. It is not as if England would have been accused of being boring had they not declared. Rather, they would have put themselves in a position where they were just as likely to win and, crucially for the first test, less likely to lose. This England side is in danger of losing its competitive edge in the name of performativity and, if it does, it will undermine the format it is trying to protect. Bad decisions are bad decisions. Ethos is only valuable when it coalesces with outcome.
Yes, it may have been exciting, but let’s be frank: losing the first test was a disaster. Edgbaston has traditionally been our fortress but we somehow managed to burn down its walls over the course of the game, which from our perspective was punctuated with moments of brilliance but ultimately lacked any coordination. We had so many luxuries: winning the toss, the underperformances of Smith and Labuschagne, rain at the right time. It was a game we never should have lost, but somehow we did.
We now face a must-win match at Lords, a ground where Australia have an almost unprecedented record for a visiting side having lost just seven times in 37 games. So how are we going to win, then?
There are, of course, areas for improvement in our performance. For a start, we must take our chances. Bairstow in particular was poor in the first test, missing a handful of catches and stumpings. But given his character, there is every reason to believe he will bounce back and I think the decision to resist bringing in Foakes will be vindicated.
Runs will be crucial again but they won’t come easily. England showed glimpses of their batting prowess in the first test, but they will face a totally different challenge here. It will be very difficult to take the initiative like they usually do on this Lords pitch against a seam attack which could include Mitchell Starc by Wednesday morning. They will no doubt be batting under more pressure, too. I highly doubt there will be another game in this series in which Smith and Labuschagne contribute less than 40 between them and if they come to the party, the likes of Crawley, Duckett, Pope and Brook will need to step up.
The bowling attack could also do with freshening up. It felt laboured at numerous points in the first test: Anderson seemed to be operating at 80%, Stokes more like 60%, while Moeen’s blisters forced him to have a bit-part role in the 2nd innings. The 90mph+ of Mark Wood would have been a welcome addition, but his persisting fitness issues have kept him out the side and England have already taken the decision to bring in Josh Tongue. He has been brought in for Moeen, though, and whether the decision to take an extra seamer and leave Root as the frontline spinner pays off, time will tell.
Yet any positive changes will be meaningless if England don’t cater their philosophy to the game in front of them. Bazball must steer away from symbolism and towards calculation. We cannot afford to make brash decisions in the name of entertainment and not expect to suffer the consequences against strong opposition. No doubt they will continue to make bold moves throughout this second test. The problem emerges when these override age-old test match wisdom. If they do, we don’t stand a chance.