One year of Bazball: Have England changed the Test game?

Brendon McCullum speaks to the press PA Photos/Getty Images

We don't know exactly the moment Bazball was born. Was England's approach to Test cricket discussed in the first meeting between the team's new coach and captain, Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes? Perhaps we can trace it to the run chase at Trent Bridge, a dizzying 50-over romp to 299 in the second Test of last summer. Or maybe it was a twinkle in McCullum's eye back when he was still an all-format player.

We do know that Friday will mark exactly a year since the pair came together to revive England's Test fortunes, starting with the home series against New Zealand in June 2022. Never mind the philosophical debates - and the fact that England, and McCullum in particular, don't like the zeitgeist-surfing nickname for their style of play - it seems a good time to check in on the revolution, with England having won 10 out of 12 Tests and preparing for six more across the next two months, including an eagerly anticipated Ashes series.

Stokes the fire

Whatever the effect of Stokes' captaincy, things couldn't really have got much worse. England had won one Test in 17 under Joe Root, going back to the winter of 2020-21, and after the failed "red-ball reset" in the Caribbean were ready for a complete reboot.

Their first outing with Stokes at the helm was in some ways at odds with what was to come - although victory in a fourth-innings chase did become a calling card. A first-day shootout at Lord's settled into a more traditional rhythm, with Joe Root's unbeaten hundred sealing the deal for England. But there were signs England were looking to do things differently, from Stokes' frenetic counter after being given a life by Colin de Grandhomme's no-ball, to the revelation that McCullum, on the third evening, "was going to send Broady in if we lost the wicket to go and have a slog".

It would be a while before Stuart Broad made an official outing in his role as "the Nighthawk", but the buzz around England's revival quickly began to grow. In a crowded home summer, they rattled off successful chases at Lord's, Trent Bridge, Headingley (296 in 54.2 overs) and Edgbaston (378 in 76.4 against India) - the latter a national record. No team had previously completed more than three 250-plus chases in a calendar year; England did it four times in the space of five weeks.

See ball, Bazball

England's aggression with the bat, if not completely unheard of before, has taken things to a new level. Across 12 Test under McCullum and Stokes, England have scored at a rate of 4.76 - a sustained assault that has never been matched in the history of the game.

One of the more telling moments during that first summer came after defeat at Lord's against South Africa. England were bowled out for 165 and 149 to lose by an innings - but McCullum's response was to ask: "Could we maybe go a little harder and try turn some pressure back on the opposition?" In fact, his side throttled back in the next Test, Stokes scoring the first - and so far only - hundred of his captaincy at Old Trafford, before a frenzied thrashing at The Oval secured the series 2-1.

Bazball was expected to face its first major test in Pakistan a few months later, only for England to expand the realm of possibility further still. In Rawalpindi, on the opening day of the series, there were four individual hundreds as they crashed 506 for 4 - the most runs ever scored on day one of a Test. England scored at above a run a ball in each innings, giving them enough time to force a result despite Pakistan scoring 579 in their first innings.

With 1768 runs scored across five days, it was the third-highest aggregate in Test history - and the highest to produce a result. Having only won two out of 24 Tests in Pakistan previously, England blitzed their way to an astonishing 3-0 win.

Although they were then held to a 1-1 draw in New Zealand, defeat in Wellington ending a run of six consecutive victories, England under Stokes have maintained a remarkable - although less remarked-upon - record with the ball. Across 12 matches and 23 innings, the bowlers have succeeded in taking all 10 wickets without exception. Only South Africa, who did so 25 times in a row between 2017 and 2018, have managed a longer streak this century.

Changing the game?

Test run rates have, unsurprisingly, trended upwards since the turn of the millennium, with white-ball skills - particularly those learned in T20 - more and more prevalent. The fast-scoring year in Test history was 2005, when runs came at 3.38 per over led by the jousting of Australia and England, and it is perhaps unsurprising that the 2023 Ashes are being hyped to a level last seen 18 years ago.

McCullum has made no secret about wanting to reinvigorate Test cricket as an entity, but have England inspired a more attacking approach across the board? It is probably too early to tell, but 2023 currently sits third on that list, with an average RPO of 3.36 and plenty of cricket still to come. And while it is a crude measure, overlooking differences in opponents and conditions, almost every major Test team has scored at a quicker rate over the last 12 months than they did the year before. (South Africa, interestingly, who refused to engage with the concept of "Bazball" last summer, are the ones treading water.)

Of course, England didn't invent attacking strokeplay - it wouldn't be a surprise if Gilbert Jessop's name gets a mention again this summer - and people will point to Virender Sehwag or Ricky Ponting's Australia as recent prototypes.

Last month, Sri Lanka's Kusal Mendis suggested that Test batting would become more like that in ODIs, with an emphasis on "not playing so many dot balls". A few days later, his side went out and racked up 704 for 3 from 151 overs - albeit against a limited Ireland attack - to win in Galle despite conceding 492 in the first innings.

And while England are unusual in having a top order so committed to the cavalier approach - only Zak Crawley, of the batters expected to start the Ashes, has scored at a strike rate of below 70 in the last year - there are players from other nations playing in a similar vein, most notably India's Rishabh Pant, who is currently recovering from serious injury, and two members of the Australian touring party that has just convened on English shores.

The beauty of Test cricket is that is always more than one way to win - and there is still a place for old-fashioned, copper-bottomed batting, as New Zealand showed when turning the Basin Reserve Test on its head in February, thereby handing Stokes only his second defeat. Australia have already made noises to suggest they won't be lining up to accept a pasting. Whether Bazball can maintain trajectory into its second year will not be in England's hands alone.

With stats inputs from S Rajesh and Sampath Bandarupalli.