Ben Stokes and Bazball

Mike Brearley’s article on Ben Stokes and Bazball appeared in the 2024 edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum have done an alchemical job with the England Test team, creating gold – if not quite from base metal. Most changes of morale and performance take place gradually. These two transformed England holistically, almost all at once.

The process, at least from the outside, has been the opposite of the Dave Brailsford “marginal gains” method of developing British cycling, where every detail is attended to. The idea is that a 1 per cent improvement on many fronts – from mechanical, through diet, sleep and travel, and using analytic experiments with wind tunnels – brings cumulative benefits. Bazball has been more magical.

Indeed “job” seems hardly sufficient. I recall a patient who suddenly left therapy, announcing he had undergone a religious experience the night before. Though he regarded our work together as good and well-intentioned, he now knew that what might take years of steady psychoanalysis could be achieved instantaneously via spiritual conversion: St Paul on the road to Damascus. (And Stokes still plays superhero innings, with his explosive bursts of strength, energy and joyous freedom.)

But can we learn from the remarkable shift in the England team? Is there anything of a sober kind to be said about such a root-and-branch transformation? And how do, how will, they respond to the inevitable reversals, when luck changes, and bravery begins to look like bravado, brilliance like naivety?

Let me give a small example of the difference between the two approaches, between the holistic and the analytic. In 1964, I was batting in the nets during a Test at Durban, watched by Wally Hammond (who would die from cancer a few months later). Dave Brown, Robin Hobbs, and – I think – Tom Cartwright were bowling. After the net, Hammond (I’m not sure I knew who he was, but I did soon after) asked if he could say something about my batting. I was open to this. “Your hands,” he said, “especially your left hand, are too tight on the bat. I think you need to relax.” I thought it might be right, but underneath I probably felt that relaxing was akin to looseness. Then, during the rest of the tour I got more and more tense, more tight rather than less. A different coach might have spoken to me about backlift, or movement of the feet, or position of the head. Hammond’s excellent advice was more to do with an overall orientation than a local change in technique, but I was not mature enough to take it in and follow it through.

Ten years later, this was put to me with even greater clarity. I had scored a poky 78 against Warwickshire at Edgbaston. It was a competent innings, but without flow: there were few boundaries. It was full of anxiety. Afterwards, I talked to Tiger Smith, former player and coach, then in his late eighties. I knew of him through Cartwright, a friend of mine, who spoke highly of his coaching. Smith’s sight was failing, but he’d been watching me bat. In the empty players’ dining-room, he suggested I pick up his walking stick, and play a shot or two. “Why are you frowning?” he asked. “Do you think you’ll hit the ball harder if you frown, if you hold on to the bat for dear life?”

Now at last I managed to listen, though the message needed to be reinforced again – as it was by Ian Botham, that other superhero, who showed me how his right glove was hardly worn, so lightly did he hold the bat in his large hands. And he hit the ball hard enough!

The point I want to make is: we learn not only by analysis of parts of the body, of how we move; we learn also by an overall attitude, by being asked if we’ll hit the ball harder if we frown. I suspect Stokes and McCullum have changed England’s team more by the latter method than the former. Coaching can involve looking at the whole person, as well as at individual parts. The lesson is more a matter of emotional attitude than mechanics, of valuing right-hemisphere brain function rather than left.

Such messages are conveyed as much by example as by words. In his early days as captain, Stokes the batter delivered his message of positivity and fearlessness nearly to excess. In Pakistan, for example, he charged down the pitch almost as soon as he had come in, swinging across the line. He seemed to feel compelled to exemplify his own battle cry to the nth degree. During last summer’s Ashes, he toned down this approach. At Lord’s, after England lost three wickets in quick succession to attacking shots against the short ball – and Australia had four or five fielders on the boundary – Stokes played with resolve, taking some balls on the body: ducking, defending, deflecting. In fact, over the whole series he scored more slowly than his fellow batters, at 64 per 100 balls. Contrast that with Zak Crawley (88), Harry Brook (78) or even Joe Root (74). That is quite revealing, since it includes his extraordinary onslaught later in the Test.

Stokes and McCullum worked on the basis that the attitude of each player and of the whole side should change. As McCullum put it a decade earlier, when he set about changing the culture of the New Zealand team after they had been bowled out for 45 by South Africa in Cape Town: “Just because there is more at stake now doesn’t mean you should lose the innocence of why you played the game in the first place. For a long time, I had lost that, and I think our team had lost it… There was no soul about our cricket… It sounds corny, but we talk about the playful little boy who fell in love with the game. When you have that mindset, you can be positive and aggressive because you’re thinking about what can go right rather than what might go wrong.” Intriguingly, he was not averse to using the word “soul”.

My guess is that he and Stokes had both had a period of losing the main point of playing: enjoyment. They had, in essence, become depressed. McCullum refers to it in himself; and we know, from the docu-film Phoenix from the Ashes, that this was true of Stokes too. The crisis over the Bristol trial, the death of his father, the isolation of Covid – all this had led him to lose, temporarily, his energy for, and love of, cricket. For both men, the new attitude was a life-saver, an opening to a change of heart and mind.

The choice of McCullum to join Stokes was inspired, and credit goes to Rob Key, newly appointed as ECB managing director of men’s cricket. Their passion for a fresh attitude, and I daresay their frankness and courage in opening others up to its possibilities, spread through the team. Things previously unthinkable were now doable. The old stars Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad were won over; they became more willing to risk a few boundaries in search of wickets, especially with the new ball. The bowlers could think more freely of how, on dead-slow pitches in Pakistan, they might mix up their deliveries. Everyone bought in to the new approach.

One of the most striking and mould-breaking achievements came in the first Test at Rawalpindi in December 2022. A key feature was that it was won without a major contribution from Stokes, which suggested the policy did not hinge on his genius. England scored 921 runs at 6.73 an over, well ahead of Pakistan, who themselves went at a not-funereal 3.36. This meant England batted for roughly a third of the match, and were in the field for two-thirds. They needed every minute gained by their ferocious run rate to achieve victory with moments to spare.

Stokes’s second-innings declaration was bold, too. In my day, and for much of the history of Test cricket, the argument would have been: on a flat, slow pitch, only the team batting second would have a chance of victory. And if the chance slid away, their lower-order batsmen would be able to survive, so easy-paced was the surface. After all our hard work, we would have felt, don’t let the opposition run us ragged!

Our attitude would have been less optimistic in other ways. Faster bowlers became cynical and pessimistic on such pitches. (One major change has been the advent of reverse swing, which opens up attacking options with the old ball in dry and dusty conditions.) Spinners shrugged their shoulders at the lack of bounce, and settled for keeping the runs down and boring the batsman out. And batsmen would, in Ken Barrington’s words, “book in for bed and breakfast”.

Yet England did win, not only the first Test in Pakistan, but all three. It was a fantastic achievement. They also won 11 of their first 13 Tests under the new set-up, one of the two defeats being by one run against New Zealand at Wellington. During the Ashes series, things began to look different. In the first match, at Edgbaston, England declared at 393-8 half an hour before the close on the first evening. Joe Root was on 118, Ollie Robinson on 17. They had just added 43 quick runs.

Was this declaration another daring gambit? Certainly, it was in this spirit. Australia, Stokes must have thought, might lose a wicket before stumps: the declaration would surprise them, put them on the back foot. It was an expression of confidence, and it moved the game along. In the event, the openers survived the four overs that evening and, next day, helped by missed chances, the Australians reached virtual parity with a score of 386. England made 273 in their second innings, and Australia, thanks to an enterprising unbroken partnership of 55 between Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon, reached their target with two wickets to spare.

At Lord’s, England declined in their first innings from 188-1 to 222-4, and from 279-4 to 325 all out. There were several dismissals to adventurous strokes. They lost another close match, this time by 43 runs. Pundits started to turn against England, calling them “naive”, “childish”, “immature”, even “unserious”. My view was less scathing. The approach had brought them the success we all admired, even adored. Yet now the whole attitude was being pulled to pieces. I agreed with some of the points. I would not have declared at Edgbaston: with Root going so strongly, England might have scored another 50 or more. It’s true that some of the batting at Lord’s was not smart.

And yet, and yet… If the earlier adoration might have been over the top, the later denigration certainly was. We observers may have criticisms, but let’s not lose touch with the spirit that had engendered and sustained the transformation for the previous year. It was this spirit and charisma that inspired the team, that led to their resurrection.

In sport, as in life, we need close analysis, shrewd good sense. But Stokes has shown a great deal of that too. We also need something more, that he and McCullum have so remarkably achieved: a change of heart.

Mike Brearley captained England in 31 of his 39 Tests, winning 18 and losing four. His latest book is Turning Over the Pebbles: A Life in Cricket and in the Mind.

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