DAZZLE BUT NO RAZZLE
England skipper Ben Stokes to keep ‘Bazball’ rolling despite Aussies bagging first Ashes Test
In the end England’s audacious ‘Bazball’ flamboyance was trumped by some true Australian grit after five days of cut-and-thrust Ashes cricket that was as addictive as anything seen before.
England captain Ben Stokes kept faith with the free-wheeling style of cricket concocted by Brendon McCullum, which had delivered 11 wins from 13 Tests.
And for much of an enthralling encounter at Edgbaston it worked a treat, with Australia at times seemingly bamboozled by the curve balls continually thrown their way.
Stokes ripped up the textbook with his field placings and gave his batters licence to express themselves, none more so than Joe Root whose reverse ramps lit up a frenetic day four which ended with some orthodox Stuart Broad seam magic.
Yet, when the dust has settled on a match resembling a glossy show-reel for the five-day format, Australia’s often cautious approach prevailed thanks to a match-winning 55-run ninth-wicket partnership between captain Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon at a spellbound Edgbaston late on Tuesday.
It would be churlish to question England’s tactics, whether it be Stokes’ decision to declare their first innings on 393 for eight near the end of a barnstorming first day, or some of the dismissals on Monday as they batted with joyous abandon.
The first ball of the match on Friday was speared to the boundary by Zak Crawley and England’s master batsman Root began Monday’s action trying a reverse scoop despite his side precariously placed on 28 for two, just 35 ahead.
He repeated the shot to hit Scott Boland for a four and a six in consecutive balls and was eventually dismissed via a stumping for the first time in his 131 Tests, charging down the track to try and blast Lyon into the stands.
In days gone by such a reckless approach would have been frowned upon, but in the world of ‘Bazball’ it is the way the cookie crumbles. You win some, you lose some.
Inevitably, with Australia winning by such a narrow margin, the fact that the visitors did not have to bowl England out twice to win a Test match will be analysed to death.
But despite going 1-0 down in the series and putting a dent in England’s hopes of winning back the Ashes urn, Stokes insists he will not have it any other way, which should be music to the ears of fans of Test cricket.
“Everyone would have been on the edge of their seat here and everyone at home will have been glued to their TV. That’s what we want to be remembered as a team,” Stokes said.
“That’s the thing about not being a results-driven team. We stuck to our ethos and did not get side-tracked by the whole arena of the Ashes… it would have been easy to play it a bit safer but we didn’t do that, not one individual.
“That’s something I’m very proud of.”
When asked about his decision to declare on Friday to enable his bowlers a late crack at Australia’s top order, Stokes said it had sent out a statement of intent.
“Scoring 390 and then being able to declare sends a message to Australia about how we want to take them on,” he said.
“We’ve managed to stand up to Australia and being in control for most of it makes it hurt a little bit more that we’ve lost but there are four more games left.”
The unpredictable match had one constant — Australia opener Usman Khawaja.
While England’s merry band of mercurial entertainers, captained by the risk-taking Stokes, ripped up the Test match textbook, Khawaja showed that old-fashioned values still have a place in the brave new world.
Cummins grabbed the headlines with a masterful 44 not out in a 55-run match-winning partnership with Lyon as the visitors reached their 281 victory target with two wickets to spare.
But without a deserved man-of-the-match Khawaja, Australia would have been bounced out by England’s ‘Bazball’.
The 36-year-old had never scored a century in England before but struck a magnificent 141 in the first innings to keep his side in the game.
He then chipped in with a painstaking 65 in the second innings, which was far from pleasing to the eye but gave Australia a platform for their late attack.
Incredibly, he batted on all five days of a rollercoaster match, facing 518 deliveries and spending an astonishing 796 minutes at the crease, barely offering up a chance.
Khawaja’s poise and diligence were a throwback to the old days when occupation of the crease meant everything and provided a fascinating contrast to the mayhem around him.
“He showed incredible composure in both innings. He didn’t get caught up in anything. He has been a class player the last few years and I’m really happy for him,” Cummins said of Khawaja.
“The plan was for everyone to bat at their own pace. Having had a good first innings he had a good feel for the wicket but everyone chipped in.”
Chants of ‘boring boring Aussies’ rang around Edgbaston on Tuesday as Australia’s chase stalled completely in the face of some suffocating England bowling and field positions.
Australia’s record of chasing down 200-plus targets has been lamentable over the past decade and when they slumped to 227 for eight chasing 281 for victory it looked as though England’s ultra-aggressive tactics would be vindicated.
But Australia stuck to their guns, never panicked, rode their luck at times, and ultimately made sure they would head to Lord’s ahead in the five-match series.
“Both teams spoke a lot about playing your own style. And that’s the beauty of this series,” Cummins said.
“Two contrasting styles, playing to our strengths and that made for great entertainment.”
So calm and composed throughout the five days, even Khawaja said he lost his nerve watching from the balcony after being bowled for 65 by Stokes on Tuesday.
“When you’re playing and you’re in, you’re fine but when you’re watching up there — I can only imagine how the fans felt,” Khawaja said of the thrilling climax.
“This has definitely got to be one of my favourite Test matches I’ve ever played in.
“I couldn’t really watch it with the guys, there was too much nervous energy out the front so I watched it in the changing room with delayed vision.”
The second Test starts at Lord’s on 28 June. Reuters/DM