England vs India: ‘Bazball’ is thrilling but Ben Stokes needs to take more savvy approach


n the evening of the second day of the Fifth Test, England faced a severe test of their newly adopted ‘Bazball’ principles. Will you still need me, will you still listen to me, when you’re 78 for four?

The answer was not quite, as England took a rare step back, sending Jack Leach as night watchman with 25 minutes remaining in the day, with clear instructions to ensure as little as possible of them went on to play cricket.

It didn’t entirely work, with Leach falling in love with a five-ball duck and letting Ben Stokes survive four deliveries before the fence alongside Jonny Bairstow, but represented an almost heartwarming bit of pragmatism in the face of a terrific bowling spell new ball from Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah.

The next morning, however, with the same pair on equally menacing form, it was back to Plan Baz. Stokes led the charge, literally, jockey down the lane to Shami and nearly tucked away while still at zero, then in the third part of the day sent the bowler back over his head for a four-way rebound.

For half an hour the races came slowly, but not for lack of trying, as Bairstow and Stokes were drawn in to play and miss, drive and cut hard. But it was once the ball softened that their methods diverged.

Bairstow was calculated and clinical, punishing bad balls and making everything look unexceptional. Stokes played with more emphasis and more risk. He survived a dizzying top edge, then was dropped again midway by Bumrah before being sent off for 25 the next ball, playing the same shot at the same defender, who took a much harder hold.

It followed similarly frantic innings – and a similar dismissal – against New Zealand at Headingley and prompted Kevin Pietersen to accuse the England skipper of “devaluing his wicket”.

At this point, however, there’s no point in wondering what form Stokes the batter is most valuable to England in – as a consistent mid-order run-maker, master of practice vibes – what you preach or selfless leader in the Eoin Morgan mold? – since clearly he and Brendon McCullum have already decided.

It started with the return to No 6, designed to give Stokes more freedom to shape matches, and certainly his commitment to following the conversation has emboldened those around him. The form of Bairstow and, to a lesser extent, Ollie Pope are examples of this and have given England – at least until this test – more license to employ one of their best hitters in such a way flourishing than before, when only he and Joe Root could be relied upon for the races.

Jonny Bairstow had a great summer.

/ PA

Is Stokes too good a player for that, a man who does his talent a disservice? Maybe, but as with all versatile talismanics, his career won’t be defined by batting average but by aura, by moments and games, and have no doubt that even playing that way he will. will win much more for England.

The more relevant question is whether there is more balance to be found, room to be a little less cavalier and a little more Jonny? That sounds oxymoronic in itself, but the answer is surely yes.

Bairstow is in a rare nick and if it was as simple as just copying the guy at the other end, England would have enjoyed a much more fruitful 18 months, given the time Root spent in the middle. But even he spoke of having to go into “survival mode” against Shami and Bumrah, scoring 13 on his first 63 balls before speeding up.

By the time he walked away with the slowest of his three successive scores in over a century this summer (hit just 75.71), no one was accusing him of abandoning principles.

Stokes’ slow start to Headingley 2019 innings becomes red herring; scoring two runs on 50 balls is rarely a good plan, and in any case, suggesting the most bizarre test shot of recent times as a repeatable plan for anything seems impractical.

But especially with Bairstow in that kind of contact, Stokes has the opportunity to give himself more time and more luck.

standard Sport

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