If Bazball is Test cricket played on steroids, as Sky Sports’ Mark Butcher put it during the home summer, then the Test cricket England played on day one in Pakistan is Bazball on steroids.
Ben Stokes’ side have not only taken their freewheeling approach to the subcontinent, they have taken it to a new level.
The first team to score 500 on the opening day of a Test match, a feat achieved in just 75 overs, and their innings of 657 all out contained more records than HMV.
The fastest Test ton by an England opener (Zak Crawley, from 86 balls). The most runs by an England batter in a Test over (Harry Brook’s 27 off Zahid Mahmood). 6.44 runs an over (England’s rate in the first session of the Test, the highest recorded in the CrivViz database). The most centurions on day one of a Test (Crawley, Brook, Ollie Pope, Ben Duckett). Reams and reams of records.
The turnaround in England’s Test cricket in a year has been mind-blowing. Let’s remember that around this time 12 months ago they were being bundled out for 147 by Australia in Brisbane at the start of an Ashes contest they went on to lose 4-0. The series was over in 12 days. They spent longer in quarantine.
As Joe Root’s side, as they were then, were repeatedly beaten, you wondered whether they and Australia were playing a different game. Now we are thinking the same – but in a good way.
England are the new trailblazers.
As they were bopping 657 in 101 overs against Pakistan in Rawalpindi, Australia made 598-4 in a more measured 152.4 overs against West Indies in Perth. Bazball is not the norm just yet.
The big question is whether it will become the norm? For as much as the talk is that England are inexorably changing Test cricket, it remains to be seen whether other teams follow suit or Stokes’ crew remain outliers in a more conservative world.
There are still naysayers. There were those that questioned whether Bazball would work in Pakistan where attritional cricket is the usual fare. There was a headline that said it definitely wouldn’t work in Pakistan. The early indications, though, are that it will, with the hosts Bazballed good and proper on day one in Rawalpindi.
And that is the key. If – and it remains an if – England can pick up results on seaming pitches at home and featherbeds in Pakistan as well as perhaps bouncy decks in Australia and South Africa and turning tracks in India and Sri Lanka in future, then white-ball-style red-ball cricket may become commonplace. Other teams could risk being left behind if they don’t try to emulate England.
The rest of the world may need a little more convincing – but the English system clearly does not. Players are queuing up to play for the Test team now when they probably weren’t before.
You can’t imagine the likes of Liam Livingstone, Duckett and Brook were too enamoured about the prospect when England opted against chasing 273 from 75 overs against New Zealand at Lord’s in 2021. A whopping 506-4 in 75 overs against Pakistan starkly highlights the change in mindset, with Livingstone and Duckett delighted to be part of the Baz and Ben revolution.
Livingstone told Sky Sports on the eve of the game in Rawalpindi: “Test cricket has never not been a dream for me, it had never gone. I just thought it was going to be hard for me to realise that dream. Thankfully Baz and Ben have taken it down a pretty cool route.
“The message from above is don’t change the way you play. When you have backing like that from someone like Baz, it is quite inspiring. It is special to have someone like that who believes in your game. The way they think is very much the way I think about cricket. When you get a telling-off for blocking and leaving it is quite good fun to be around. It’s such a refreshing environment.”
Duckett was equally glowing about the atmosphere as he reflected on scoring his first Test century, in his first red-ball game for his country since 2016: “I don’t think there will be a better environment to be involved in. I am sure there will be lots of cricketers desperate to be in this dressing room. I was one of them last summer.
“[McCullum and Stokes] allow you to play your game and play with freedom. The real change was looking at this squad at the start of the summer. I went back to playing with more freedom.”
Brook was rather lost for words as he digested his century in Rawalpindi – but he more than let his bat do the talking.
His 80-ball hundred was England’s third-fastest in Tests and at one stage he appeared on course to eclipse Gilbert Jessop’s 120-year-old record of 76 deliveries after smoking part-time Pakistan spinner Saud Shakeel for six fours in an over, a passage of play he joked that he enjoyed more than his century.
A day later, Brook cantered past 150 from 115 balls, smashing a record 27 runs by an England batter in a Test over when he took apart beleaguered leg-spinner Zahid Mahmood. Six, four, four, four, six, three was the tune of the punishment.
I knew there was talent within England but I hadn’t realise how good they were. I am not just talking about the top tier. I spoke to the Lions about what we want to see from them, to play the style we want, and the skillset is not a problem. It’s unquestionable how good these players are.
For Brook to play like that in just his second Test speaks volumes for the culture Stokes has cultivated, one the skipper lives and breathes, as evidenced by the fact he danced down the wicket to Naseem Shah and clocked the first ball he faced on the second morning for six. The fear of failure is gone. If players do ‘fail’, they are encouraged to come back harder, to never lose that intent.
That is an intoxicating thing to be a part of and, as a result, England’s player pool is deepening. They need it too if they are to be successful everywhere in the world, as there are some gaping holes in the bowling attack that picked up no Pakistan wickets on day two in Rawalpindi. Namely express pace and mystery spin, the game-altering elements that all captains want at their disposal, especially on pitches as placid as the one this Test is being played on.
The former could be fixed as early as the second Test with England hopeful Mark Wood will be fit to play after a hip complaint and longer term there is the potential for Olly Stone and Jofra Archer. Both could have chosen to focus on white-ball cricket after a horror run with injuries but both have publicly said they want to be part of England’s Test resurgence and Ashes returns could beckon.
The mystery spin is a trickier one. If anyone can convince white-ball master Adil Rashid to give the red-ball game another crack then it is probably Stokes but it might be that 18-year-old Leicestershire leggie Rehan Ahmed becomes the man to provide the magic.
Ahmed was a late and surprising addition to the party after impressing with his potential and personality at a training camp in the UAE but his inclusion also seemed to smack of England wanting to convince him of the virtues of red-ball cricket with white-ball franchises circling.
The thing is that with the McCullum-Stokes axis transforming England’s results and style, players no longer need that much convincing. Why play white-ball cricket when the red-ball game can be even more exciting?
Over to you, rest of the world. Are you coming along for the ride?
Watch day three of the first Test between Pakistan and England, in Rawalpindi, live on Sky Sports Cricket and Sky Sports Main Event on Saturday. Build-up begins at 4.45am ahead of the first ball at 5am.