Australia braced for Bazball assault as England focus on reclaiming Ashes
England’s barnstorming version of Test cricket has shredded the textbook of the sport’s longest format but so-called ‘Bazball’ faces its biggest examination yet as they seek to regain the Ashes against world champions Australia, starting on Friday.
Conventional cricketing wisdom has been turned upside down by England coach Brendon ‘Baz’ McCullum and captain Ben Stokes in a scintillating run of 11 victories from 13 Tests.
Scoring at a head-spinning average of almost five runs an over under McCullum, England’s risk-takers have re-imagined the approach to Test cricket and transformed the country’s fortunes after a run of only one win from 17 Tests previously.
It has bamboozled India, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan. England made a first-day record 506 runs in 75 overs in the first Test against Pakistan in Rawalpindi.
And against New Zealand at home last year, they made daunting fourth innings victory targets of 277, 299 and 297 look as demanding as a walk in the park.
The big question, however, as the opening Test looms at Edgbaston on Friday is whether England will play with the same almost reckless abandon against an Australia side possessing arguably the best pace attack in the world.
Stokes and McCullum have given no hint at reeling it in during the build-up to the most eagerly-awaited series since the classic 2005 edition won by England.
Fighting fire with fire
Whether Australia — who reclaimed the Ashes in 2018 with a 4-0 home win and retained them with a 2-2 draw in England in 2019 before another 4-0 home rout in 2021 — try to fight fire with fire is another matter.
Pat Cummins’ side are not exactly shrinking violets and will begin their quest for a first series win in England since 2001 full of confidence after convincingly beating India in London to win the World Test Championship (WTC).
Steve Smith, so often a thorn in England’s side, scored a century in the first innings against India and along with Marnus Labuschagne will form the bedrock of Australia’s batting while Travis Head will be a handful for England’s bowlers.
But how their bowling unit of Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood react when faced with ‘Bazball’ for the first time could be the key to the outcome.
“Every Ashes series gets the juices flowing but there’s added excitement this time around,” former England skipper Nasser Hussain told The Metro.
“That’s because of the brand and style of cricket this England side are playing. There’s that question we all have: can they turn up and do to Australia what they have done to every other side they’ve come up against?”
England warmed up with a predictable thrashing of Ireland at Lord’s, with bowler Stuart Broad pushing his case for selection with five wickets in the first innings while Ollie Pope scored a run-a-ball double century to cement his place.
Broad is battling for a starting spot along with old strike partner James Anderson, Ollie Robinson and Mark Wood while Moeen Ali, back in the Test fold after England’s go-to spin Jack Leach suffered a back injury, is likely to start despite having not appeared in a Test since 2021.
Moeen, a proven match-winner on his day, said answering Stokes’ call was an easy decision.
“To be part of it is amazing. It’s such a big series and the guys have been playing exciting cricket,” he said.
With the weather set fair, the opening skirmish promises fireworks as both sides seek to seize the momentum.
“I think England are marginal favourites just because Australia haven’t won over here for such a long time but it’s very hard to call. All I know is, there won’t be too many draws,” former England captain Michael Atherton said.
Hazlewood in contention
Australia fast bowler Hazlewood hopes to play in at least three Ashes Tests after declaring himself fit for the series opener beginning in Edgbaston on Friday.
The injury-plagued 32-year-old has played only two Tests in the last 15 months and was left out of the squad which beat India in the WTC final at The Oval on Sunday.
Australia now have a selection headache before the series against England with Scott Boland, Starc and Hazlewood vying for two slots in a pace attack spearheaded by skipper Cummins.
Hazlewood acknowledged he would have found it difficult to play the WTC final and all five Ashes Tests on the condensed tour given his injury issues over the last couple of years.
“If we go back a few years, I would have said all six,” Hazlewood told reporters on Tuesday when asked how many matches he would have liked to play on the tour.
“But I guess it’s a little bit different now, based on the last two years. Three would be a nice pass and four is probably a tick.
“Any more than that is great, any less, then I am probably a little disappointed again.”
Boland was the most impressive Australia bowler in the WTC final with former captain Aaron Finch and retired speedster Brett Lee calling for the Victorian to be retained in Edgbaston.
Hazlewood did not believe Boland’s rise posed a threat to his place in the side.
“When you have that depth … you really go as hard as you can and then reassess after the game,” Hazlewood said.
“You always have someone of high quality sitting on the pine and ready to go.”
The emergence of Boland and seam-bowling all-rounder Cameron Green could actually help prolong his career, he added.
“You might miss one or two games with a niggle now, rather than pushing it and missing three or four months.
“We probably played 20 or 30 Tests with no all-rounder, and that was pretty tough yards for a few years.
“If we have a group of four or five quicks we can go together for longer,” he added. Reuters/DM