Why is England’s ‘Bazball’ war cry missing from their disastrous World Cup campaign?

With England’s World Cup defence all over, bar a major miracle, you would have thought that they would have brought out all stops to try and stop the rot.

They do have a secret weapon, after all. You know, that highly scientific, revolutionary, all-conquering Bazball palaver!

It kind of worked during the Ashes; even though the urn returned down under, it did help deny Australia the series win.

The problem? Commentator Mark Nicholas summed it up best when he labelled it a misnomer. It is kind of like Michael Jordan’s secret formula (later revealed as simply water) for Bugs Bunny and his gang in the original Space Jam movie; whilst ever you believe that you are on top and winning, you are mighty and powerful – until that exact moment you realise that you are not.

Before anyone shouts from the rafters: “it is the wrong format” or “Brendon McCullum is not the coach at the World Cup” – that is my point – why not? Why did England not choose to build on the momentum that was created just three months ago by sticking with what worked, or at least protecting their skyrocketing confidence levels?

Simply put, Bazball was a superficial campaign that looked good to the eyes of some and entertained others, rather than concentrating on building form or lasting self-assurance. The great Geoffrey Boycott even acknowledged this, fearing England was getting away from wanting to win games and just hitting big totals in a hurry.

It has never been a genuine cricket tactic, and there is little secret behind it. England did not need to change anything to get more runs or score quicker; they won the World Cup in 2019 – albeit from Ben Stokes ‘Bat of God’ moment and an unusual statistical countback rule in the Powerplay, and then backed it up with the 2022 T20 World Cup in Australia.

Ben Stokes at Wankhede Stadium during the Cricket World Cup. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

They also have some of T20’s most dangerous players in franchise tournaments, with Joe Root, Ollie Pope, Harry Brook, Ben Stokes, Dawid Malan, and Liam Livingstone – just to name a few. Batting depth even goes right down the order to Mark Wood who showed his class in the Third Test with what could have almost been a match-winning smash and grab at Headingley after Lunch. The white ball game is not foreign to them, nor is scoring runs quickly, they have the talent – and making out that they were doing something new, different or foreign is slightly misleading.

So why did they need Bazball to stop Australia from winning the series – and why is it not a long-term strategy? Although it looks like a technique or style, it is, in fact, a marketing gimmick masquerading as a coaching masterclass – and campaigns, by nature, are temporary.

Despite being based around the name “Baz”, it is highly doubtful that it was created by Brendon McCullum and his assistants in the cricket dressing room alone. It is hardly revolutionary to tell a modern-day international cricketer to play more attacking or score more runs.

It is also hardly surprising that this “new style” sometimes paid off and worked – I mean you can play $1000-a-hit on red or black at roulette, and at some stage, you are likely to be ahead. But many successful gamblers will tell you it is not a sustainable long-term strategy.

Where the battle actually took place was in the minds of the players – psychological warfare – and with the help of the British Press, Australia immediately took the bait, perhaps even before they left home. Stuart Broad infamously declared the previous Ashes series was null and void due to a COVID-19-affected build-up, and the response was widespread and savage.

On day one of the first Test, Pat Cummins employed a defensive field from the start, to much bewilderment. The Aussies were vindicated by the match result in the end, but England took it as a victory that they were in the opposition’s head.

As mentioned, the whole thing was basically a marketing campaign or propaganda. It was launched just after England’s thrashing here in Australia and was used in the Test series leading up, creating headlines on both sides of the world as journalists looked to hype up the series with any little bit of banter that they could share to turn a molehill into a mountain – and the fans revelled in the patriotism.

The Ashes was always the main goal, and England was prepared to use every trick that they had up their sleeve. The British public is very nationalistic. The wartime slogan from the Winston Churchill era “Keep Calm and Carry On” is still on the paraphernalia used in many households across the country.

In a similar way, the English Cricket Board galvanised the country behind one simple word “Bazball”, and the public – cricket fans or not – did their part, making the Aussies public enemy number one. Stadiums were packed, and loud. Media coverage was massive, Test cricket was going viral across the UK. It was more like a vicious football atmosphere with chanting and abuse coming at the Australian players – session after session, day after day – it was relentless.

Chris Woakes celebrates with Mark Wood after hitting the winning runs in the Third Ashes Test. (Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images)

In the end, it may have just worn the Australians down. After taking the first two games of the series, the Aussies were not able to stand up in the key moments and land the knock-out blow. There were many chances to win in a canter, and if they played at their best even had a 4-nil result. But mental lapses with the bat in Tests three and five allowed England to escape with a draw. So, without winning back the urn, this was the next best result for the hosts. The reality is, had Manchester not been washed out, the urn would have been staying there.

Frustratingly, it all seemed to turn after the infamous final day of the Lord’s Test, when the English public and media ganged up on the Aussies over the Jonny Bairstow stumping. While it was completely in the rules, the British people argued it was against the “Spirit of the Game”.

Down two-nil in the series, the backs were against the wall, and the Brits needed to come out swinging – and that they did – but not with bats and balls; England’s other weapon. The press coverage intensified, the social media coverage bordered on abusive and the Aussies could not escape continually being asked whether it was “fair”. This was the fuel that further inflamed an already intense inferno.

Ben Stokes speaks to the umpires after Jonny Bairstow was controversially dismissed in the Second Ashes Test at Lord’s. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

If you want to know more about the spirit of the game, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord’s created the rulebook and there is a specific ‘preamble’ addressing that exact term, stating it is about accepting the umpire’s decision. However, instead of doing that and getting on with playing, they decided to launch a full-on media war – even numpties who had very little idea of cricket, stole the headlines – all with the aim of getting in Australian players’ heads.

It did not help that the length of time for the whole series was just over a month and there was little time to take a break from it all and refresh. There were signs of mental fatigue late in the series, as England got their second wind from all the hype.

While there were plenty of runs scored by England through the Bazball mentality, Usman Khawaja was actually the series top scorer with 496 – and bowling-wise another Aussie, Mitch Starc took the honours with 23 wickets in the series.

England may need to take a leaf out of the Test side’s “Bazball” playbook and reignite their 50-overs World Cup campaign with an aggressive approach, said Moeen Ali

More here: https://t.co/BuAEcozxuq#CWC23 #CricketTwitter pic.twitter.com/dMqQPewjDN

— CricWick (@CricWick) October 25, 2023

Now in India, miles away from home, England does not have this raucous fan base that helped them in the last World Cup, nor the Ashes, and cracks are starting to appear in their mental stability – with heavy losses to New Zealand, Afghanistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka – and only prevailing over the Netherlands.

They are starting to look like the “England of old”, the same ones that have been dealt many humiliating losses. It is almost like the confidence has been sucked out of them and barely a lull of a wave to ride on – and the English press who were so heavily on their side during the Ashes have changed direction and begun the pile-on, and the squad is actually now battling a strong headwind.

What it all proves is that sport is just as much a mental battle as it is physical or tactical – confidence can determine if you come out like a tiger or a pussy cat. There is no doubt England’s players can play, but if ever they needed Bazball, even as a confidence booster, it was in this tournament. After the first two games, they have failed to score over 215, which may be a winnable target in T20s, but not the 50-over game.

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When the rot started, they simply did not have months or even years to construct a confidence-building campaign to save them. However, if they start pulling together a good team of promoters and marketers, maybe there could be another good catch-cry or hashtag to lean upon by the time they visit Down Under to try to take the urn back home.

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